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Gerontology (from Greek: γέρον, geron, "old man"; and λόγος, logos, "speech" lit. "to talk about old age") is the study of the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging. It is distinguished from geriatrics, which is the branch of medicine that studies the disease of the elderly.

Gerontology includes these and other endeavors:

  • studying physical, mental, and social changes in people as they age;
  • investigating the aging process itself (biogerontology);
  • investigating the interface of normal aging and age-related disease (geroscience);
  • investigating the effects of our aging population on society, including the fiscal effects of pensions, entitlements, life and health insurance, and retirement planning;
  • applying this knowledge to policies and programs, including a macroscopic (i.e. government planning) and microscopic (i.e. running a nursing home) perspective.

The multidisciplinary focus of gerontology means that there are a number of sub-fields, as well as associated fields such as psychology and sociology that also cross over into gerontology. However, that there is an overlap should not be taken as to construe that they are the same. For example, a psychologist may specialize in early adults (and not be a gerontologist) or specialize in older adults (and be a gerontologist).

The field of gerontology was developed relatively late, and as such often lacks the structural and institutional support needed (for example, relatively few universities offer a Ph.D. in gerontology). Yet the huge increase in the elderly population in the post-industrial Western nations has led to this becoming one of the most rapidly growing fields. As such, gerontology is currently a well-paying field for many in the West.


A senior citizen in trying to slow down his process of aging by physical fitness exercises


Main article: Life extension

Biogerontology, is the subfield of gerontology dedicated to studying the biological processes . Some skeptics have worked to show that aging is a biological process that we are far from being able to control. Conservative biogerontologists who have only an intellectual interest in the aging process, like Leonard Hayflick, have predicted that the human life expectancy numbers will top out at about 85 (88 for females, 82 for males).

Biomedical gerontology, also known as experimental gerontology and life extension, is a sub discipline of biogerontology, that endeavors to slow, prevent, and even reverse aging in both humans and animals. Curing age-related diseases is one approach, and slowing down the underlying processes of aging is another. Most 'life extensionists' believe the human life span can be altered within the next century, if not sooner. 'Optimists' have predicted a changing human life span, though this has not yet been demonstrated.

Many biogerontologists take an intermediate position, emphasizing the study of the aging process as a means of mitigating aging-associated diseases, while denying that maximum life span can be altered (or denying that it is desirable to try).

Notable social and psychological gerontologists

  • Alexis Abramson
  • Vern Bengston[1] -- Professor emeritus at the USC Davis School of Gerontology. His research covers the sociology of life course, family sociology, social psychology, and ethnicity and aging.
  • James Birren considered to be the "founding father" of gerontology. Dean emeritus at the USC Davis School of Gerontology. An expert in the areas of neurocognition and psychology, he established much of the framework of modern gerontological theory.
  • Eileen Crimmins - Edna M. Jones Professor of Gerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology and director of the USC/UCLA Center on Biodemography and Population Health. Currently researches the links between education, income level, and health in old age.
  • Linda George
  • Pearl German
  • Sarah Harper Professor of Gerontology, University of Oxford
  • Elizabeth Zelinski -- principal investigator of the Long Beach Longitudinal Study, which evaluates cognition, memory and language comprehension in older adults.
  • Mara Mather - cognitive psychologist and gerontologist whose research focuses on memory, emotion, decision making and aging
  • Erdman Palmore - noted for the International Handbook on Aging
  • Jon Pynoos-- UPS Foundation Professor of Gerontology, Policy, Planning and Development at the USC Davis School of Gerontology. Expert on housing and long term care policies and programs for the elderly. Co-director of the Fall Prevention Center of Excellence.
  • K. Warner Schaie

Alan Walker

  • Kathleen Wilber -- Mary Pickford Foundation Professor of Gerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology. Her research is focused on improving the quality of life of people with chronic physical and mental health conditions by improving the formal health and long term care delivery systems.

Notable biogerontologists

Notable biomedical gerontologists

  • Ana Aslan
  • L. Stephen Coles - a key member of the Supercentenarian Research Foundation
  • Alex Comfort - studied and popularized the biology of aging, while promoting life extension
  • João Pedro Magalhães - works on genomics of aging at the University of Liverpool
  • Kelvin Davies - has greatly advanced research into understanding of damaged protein aggregates and their contribution to age-related diseases.
  • Caleb Finch - has received a variety of the major awards in biomedical gerontology. He currently directs the NIH-funded Alzheimer Disease Research Center.
  • Michael Fossel
  • Aubrey de Grey - originated the concept and theory of engineered negligible senescence[2]
  • Steven A. Garan
  • Leonid Gavrilov - suggested the reliability theory of aging and longevity
  • David Gems - works on aging in roundworms at University College London
  • Leonard Guarente - proposed that sirtuins mediate the beneficial effects of caloric restriction [3]
  • Denham Harman (born 1916) - developed the free radical theory of aging
  • Robin Holliday - discovered "Holliday junctions" as homologous recombination; extensive work on testing the error catastrophe theory of aging; putforward the ideas about the role of DNA methylation and epimutations in aging.
  • Kenneth Howse - UK Oxford philosopher and ethicist, expert on Longevity
  • Thomas E. Johnson - discovered long-lived mutants of C elegans
  • Matt Kaeberlein - discovered the anti-aging role of sirtuins [4] and proposed that the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) mediates the beneficial effects of caloric restriction [5]
  • Brian Kennedy - challenges the hypothesis that sirtuins mediate the beneficial effects of caloric restriction[6] instead proposing that the mediator is the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) [5]
  • Cynthia Kenyon - quadrupled the lifespan of specimens of the small worm Caenorhabitis elegans by altering a single gene
  • Thomas Kirkwood - developed the disposable soma theory, contributing to the evolutionary biogerontology
  • Marios Kyriazis - proposed carnosine as a general anti-aging supplement, and disapproved the notion that cosmetics and beauty products form part of anti-aging medicine
  • Valter Longo - advanced research in the field of gene manipulation and its relation to life extension.
  • Linda Partridge - works on Drosophila aging at University College London
  • Christian Pike - studies the role of neuronal apoptosis in neural diseases. Also leads research on testosterone's effects on the development of Alzheimer's disease.
  • Durk Pearson - mostly self-taught on biology research, published the book Life Extension
  • Suresh Rattan - coined the terms gerontogenes and virtual-gerontogenes; is a pioneer of application of mild stress-induced hormesis as an aging modulatory strategy in human cells; and is the founding Editor-in-Chief of the journal "[Biogerontology]".
  • Michael R. Rose -- bred long-lived fruit flies, a founder of evolutionary biogerontology
  • Edward L. Schneider - the former director of the NIA's Gerontology Research Center and the first recipient of the William and Sylvia Kugel Chair of Gerontology.
  • David Sinclair - proposed that resveratrol slows aging and mimics caloric restriction by activating Sirtuins [7]
  • John Speakman - works on metabolism and aging at the University of Aberdeen
  • Roy Walford (June 29, 1924 San Diego, California – April 27, 2004) - an early advocate of caloric restriction

Notable biogerotechnologists (business/applied)

  • Robert Lanza
  • Thomas Okarma
  • Michael West

Notable demographic gerontologists

  • Eileen Crimmins - director of the USC/UCLA Center on Biodemography and Population Health. Currently researches the links between education, income level, and health in old age.
  • Sarah Harper, UK Professor Gerontology, Oxford University , described social implications of population ageing, expert on work and family amd ageing in Asia
  • George Leeson UK Oxford statistician and demographer, worked extensively on Scandinavian ageing and global migration; Heads Global Ageing Survey
  • Jay Olshansky - a noted skeptic of life-extension claims
  • Jean-Marie Robine - validated the Jeanne Calment case
  • James Vaupel - lead the push for the internationalization of demographic data on the human life span

Notable non-biomedical biogerontologists

  • Leonard Hayflick (born 1928) - discovered the Hayflick limit, asserts elimination of aging is neither possible nor desirable
  • Raymond Pearl (3 June 1879 - 17 November 1940)
  • Elizabeth Zelinski - studies memory and cognition in older adults.

Social gerontology

Social gerontology is a multi-disciplinary sub-field that specializes in studying or working with older adults.

Social gerontologists may have degrees or training in social work, nursing, psychology, sociology, demography, gerontology, or other social science professions. Gerontologists are responsible for educating, researching, and advancing the broader causes of older people by giving informative presentations, publishing books and articles that pertain to the aging population, producing relevant films and television programs, and producing new graduates of these various disciplines in college and university settings.

Because issues of life span and life extension need numbers to quantify them, there is an overlap with demography. Those that study the demography of the human life span are different than those that study the social demographics of aging.

Medical gerontology

see geriatrics

History of Gerontology

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It may be said that the history of gerontology begins with agriculture; prior to this the hunter-gatherer societies that existed could only support a marginal existence: food supply was short; frequent movement a necessity. These and other reasons meant that extremely few reached 'old age'. However, it could be argued that in a society with a life expectancy of 14 (such as 10,000 BC), being '40' was 'old'.

Things changed with the coming of agriculture. A more stable food supply and the lack of frequent movement meant that humans could now survive longer, and beginning perhaps around 4000 BC, a regular segment of the population began to attain 'old age' in places such as Mesopotamia and the Indus river valleys. Agriculture didn't simply bring a steady food supply; it also suddenly made older persons an economic benefit instead of a burden. Older persons could stay and watch the farm (or children); make pottery or jewelry, and perform social functions, such as story-telling (oral tradition, religion, etc). and teaching the younger generation techniques for farming, tool-making, etc.

After this change, the views of elder persons in societies waxed and waned, but generally the proportion of the population over 50 or 60 remained small. Note that in ancient Egypt, Pharaoh Pepi II was said to have lived to 100 years old. Certainly Ramses II lived to about 90; modern scientific testing of his mummy supports the written record. Ancient Greeks valued old persons for their wisdom (some reaching 80, 90, or 100 years old), while old age was devalued in Roman times.

In the medieval Islamic world, elderly people were valued by Muslim physicians. Avicenna's The Canon of Medicine (1025) was the first book to offer instruction for the care of the aged, foreshadowing modern gerontology and geriatrics. In a chapter entitled "Regimen of Old Age", Avicenna was concerned with how "old folk need plenty of sleep", how their bodies should be anointed with oil, and recommended exercises such as walking or horse-riding. Thesis III of the Canon discussed the diet suitable for old people, and dedicated several sections to elderly patients who become constipated.[8]

The Canon of Medicine recognized four periods of life: the period of growth, prime of life, period of elderly decline (from forty to sixty), and decrepit age. He states that during the last period, "there is hardness of their bones, roughness of the skin, and the long time since they produced semen, blood and vaporal breath". However, he agreed with Galen that the earth element is more prominent in the aged and decrepit than in other periods. Avicenna did not agree with the concept of infirmity, however, stating: "There is no need to assert that there are three states of the human body—sickness, health and a state which is neither health nor disease. The first two cover everything."[8]

The famous Arabic physician, Ibn Al-Jazzar Al-Qayrawani (Algizar, circa 898-980), also wrote a special book on the medicine and health of the elderly, entitled Kitab Tibb al-Machayikh[9] or Teb al-Mashaikh wa hefz sehatahom.[10] He also wrote a book on sleep disorders and another one on forgetfulness and how to strengthen memory, entitled Kitab al-Nissian wa Toroq Taqwiati Adhakira,[11][12][13] and a treatise on causes of mortality entitled Rissala Fi Asbab al-Wafah.[14] Another Arabic physician in the 9th century, Ishaq ibn Hunayn (died 910), the son of Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, wrote a Treatise on Drugs for Forgetfulness (Risalah al-Shafiyah fi adwiyat al-nisyan).[15]

In medieval Europe on the other hand, during its Dark Ages, negative opinions of the elderly prevailed; old women were often burned at the stake as witches. However, with the coming of the Renaissance old age returned to favor in Europe, as persons such as Michelangelo and Andrea Doria exemplified the ideals of living long, active, productive lives.

While the number of aged humans, and the maximum ages lived to, tended to increase in every century since the 1300s, society tended to consider caring for an elderly relative as a family issue. It was not until the coming of the Industrial Revolution with its techniques of mass production that ideas shifted in favor of a societal care-system. Care homes for the aged emerged in the 1800s. Note that some early pioneers, such as Michel Eugène Chevreul, who himself lived to be 102 in the 1880s, believed that aging itself should be a science to be studied. The word itself was coined circa 1903.[16]

It was not until the 1940s, however, that pioneers like James Birren began organizing 'gerontology' into its own field. Recognizing that there were experts in many fields all dealing with the elderly, it became apparent that a group like the Gerontological Society of America was needed (founded in 1945). Two decades later, James Birren was appointed as the founding director of the first academic research center devoted exclusively to the study of aging, the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California.[17] In 1975, the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology became the first academic gerontology department, with Birren as its founding dean.

In the 1950s to the 1970s, the field was mainly social and concerned with issues such as nursing homes and health care. However, research by Leonard Hayflick in the 1960s (showing that a cell line culture will only divide about 50 times) helped lead to a separate branch, biogerontology. It became apparent that simply 'treating' aging wasn't enough. Finding out about the aging process, and what could be done about it, became an issue.

The biogerontological field was also bolstered when research by Cynthia Kenyon and others demonstrated that life extension was possible in lower life forms such as fruit flies, worms, and yeast. So far, however, nothing more than incremental (marginal) increases in life span have been seen in any mammalian species.

Today, social gerontology remains the largest sector of the field, but the biogerontological side is seen as being the 'hot' side.[18] Indeed, some have said that social gerontologists look to the past; biogerontologists look to the future.

Academic resources

  • Journal of Applied Gerontology, ISSN: 1552-4523 (electronic) ISSN: 0733-4648 (paper), SAGE Publications
  • Age and Aging, an international journal publishing refereed original articles on geriatric medicine and gerontology. Oxford University Press. 6 issues / 12 months. ASIN: B00006LAGZ ISSN:

See also


  1. SpringerLink - Journal Article
  2. de Grey, Aubrey; & Rae, Michael (September 2007). Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, 416, New York, NY: St. Martin's Press.
  3. Guarente L, Picard F (February 2005). Calorie restriction—the SIR2 connection. Cell 120 (4): 473–82.
  4. 1. Kaeberlein, M., M. McVey, and L. Guarente, The SIR2/3/4 complex and SIR2 alone promote longevity in Saccharomyces cerevisiae by two different mechanisms. Genes Dev, 1999. 13(19): p. 2570-80.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Kaeberlein M, Powers RW, Steffen KK, et al (November 2005). Regulation of yeast replicative life span by TOR and Sch9 in response to nutrients. Science 310 (5751): 1193–6.
  6. Kaeberlein M, Kirkland KT, Fields S, Kennedy BK (September 2004). Sir2-independent life span extension by calorie restriction in yeast. PLoS Biol. 2 (9): E296.
  7. Howitz KT, Bitterman KJ, Cohen HY, et al (September 2003). Small molecule activators of sirtuins extend Saccharomyces cerevisiae lifespan. Nature 425 (6954): 191–6.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Howell, Trevor H. (1987), "Avicenna and His Regimen of Old Age", Age and Ageing 16: 58–59, doi:10.1093/ageing/16.1.58, PMID 3551552 
  9. Al Jazzar
  10. Vesalius Official journal of the International Society for the History of Medicine
  11. Algizar a web page in french
  12. Ibn Jazzar
  13. [Geritt Bos, Ibn al-Jazzar, Risala fi l-isyan (Treatise on forgetfulness), London, 1995 ]
  14. Al Jazzar
  15. Islamic culture and medical arts
  16. Online Etymology Dictionary
  17. USC Andrus Gerontology Center
  18. Effros RB (April 2005). Roy Walford and the immunologic theory of aging. Immun Ageing 2 (1): 7.

External links

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