Coined in 1906 by Russian biologist Eli Metchnikoff, the word gerontology is historically derived from the Greek word geront, meaning “old man,” and logia, meaning “the study of” By definition, gerontology is the scientific study of the biological, psychological, historical, sociological, and economic aspects of human aging. Research is aimed at discovering the processes inherent in aging, as well as the most effective ways in which to apply the knowledge for the benefit of society.
Contributions to the study of the aging process are made from many of the basic science fields. For example, biochemical, genetic, and immunological research provide valuable information on the biological aspects of aging. Cardiological and neurological studies provide gerontologists with insights into the causes, epidemiology, and consequences of disease processes affecting the elderly. Social science and behavioral research are useful in providing gerontologists with a holistic view of the process of aging. Because of this, gerontology can be considered a true multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary field as it relies on the contributions of several scientific disciplines.
Disciplines of Gerontology
Historically, concern and interest in the aged of society has existed for thousands of years. However, gerontology as a unique and empirically based field of science is a relatively new concept. Methodological scientific inquiry began as early as the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when Sir Francis Bacon studied the relationship between poor hygiene and rapid aging. Later, Ben Franklin contributed to the legitimacy of the study of aging in his research on the uses of lightning and energy to rejuvenate and to retard death.
By the early to mid-20th century, several basic themes had emerged in the study of aging. One was that the problems associated with aging are complex and can be better understood within an interdisciplinary framework. Second, scientists had begun to recognize that there were social consequences of an aging population, and due to this, there was a need for basic information on both normal and abnormal aging processes. Third, there appeared to be an interaction between one’s biological predisposition and the environment that affects age.
This aspect of gerontology focuses on physical longevity and causes of death. Research is directed at understanding both normal and abnormal physical changes that can be directly associated with an aging biological system. Factors include age-related hormonal changes, cell mutation, wear on tissue, degenerative influences of physical illness and disease, and related functional incapacitation.
Of important interest to the gerontologist is the ability to understand and differentiate between normal aging and pathological disease processes. Age-related changes of the biological system do occur naturally in the normal population in the absence of illness or trauma. However, it would seem that as we age, we become more vulnerable to disease for a variety of reasons, such as central nervous system (CNS) cell loss, inefficient myocardial functioning, and reduced immunoogic response.
Multidisciplinary gerontological research is frequently centered on preventative interventions aimed at extending and improving the quality and span of life. Not surprisingly, findings suggest that exercise and nutrition improve cardiovascular health, increase bone and muscle structure, and reduce weight. Complex genetic manipulation studies have also shown effectiveness toward maintaining and restoring aging biological systems of the human body.
Psychological concepts such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, thrill-seeking behaviors, antisocial personality, and introversion are all variables that can affect the aging process by putting people at high risk for injury or disease. This subspecialty of gerontology looks at the role of interpersonal relationships (social support) and intrapersonal factors (age, gender, cognition, coping mechanisms, and genetics) and their impact on life and aging.
There appear to be several age-related changes that affect cognitive status, in particular, memory functions, the ability to learn new things, intellectual flexibility, and thought-processing speed, all of which can directly affect one’s level of functioning in society. In addition, the elderly deal with a plethora of psychological factors associated with age that younger adults don’t typically face (grief, loss of employment status, infirmity) that can complicate or reduce one’s ability to deal with stress and change.
This approach examines how the unique norms and values a society holds can impact individual perception and reaction to growing old. Gerontologists hold that aging itself is a socially defined and constructed process. The ways in which a society conceives of the capabilities and expected roles of its older members vary by location, historical time period, religion, and culture. For example, the role a 75-year-old woman plays in an extended family might be much more involved in an Asian society compared with an industrialized Western society.
In addition, there appear to be political and economic factors that can influence the process and quality of human aging and life expectancy. These factors include national industrialization, sanitation, diet, hygiene, poverty, harmful substance exposure, medical accessibility, and infant mortality rate.
Gerontology vs. Geriatrics
Gerontology is often confused with its sister science, geriatrics, as both are concerned with the biological aspects of aging. However, geriatrics is more restricted in scope, concerning itself primarily with clinical diagnosis and medical management of disease and illness within the elderly population. Geriatrics is the study of the medical aspects of old age and suggests an active role as practitioner, or caregiver. In contrast, gerontology strongly implies a scientific mission, focused on the understanding of the etiology, frequency distributions, and consequences of disease and illness.
Technological and medical advances in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have contributed to the increase in size of the aged population. As the scientific community continues to search for more effective treatment methods and cures for disease and illness, it is likely that this population will continue to grow. As such, it can be assumed that interest in the field of gerontology will rise at a similar rate in an effort to meet the social, economical, and psychological needs of the elderly. Future research in gerontology will likely be applied to the development of new and improved treatment and social policies intended to improve the quality of life and extend the years of healthy functioning among the rapidly increasing aged population.
- Birren, J. E. (Ed.). (1996). Encyclopedia of gerontology: Age, aging and the aged. San Diego: Academic Press.
- Ferraro, K. F. (Ed.). (1990). Gerontology: Perspectives and issues. New York: Springer.
- Maddox, G. L. et al. (Eds.). (2001). The encyclopedia of aging (3rd ed., Vol. 1, A-L). New York: Springer.
- Roberts, P., & Irons-Georges, T. (Eds.). (2000). Aging: Vol. I. Abandonment-injuries among the elderly. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.