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Gerontology - Twentieth-century Advances In The Gerontological Perspective

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Foreshadowings of the storyline of twentieth-century gerontology are plentiful. Early Egyptian, Greek, and Roman commentaries on the course of life were known and carefully read by the first of the modern gerontologists. Cicero's De Senectute and Soranus of Ephesus's Gynaecia and his Acute Disease and Chronic Disease were frequently echoed. For example, Jean-Martin Charcot's examination of pathological causes of aging captured in his Diseases of the Elders and Their Chronic Illnesses (1867) (translated into English in 1881) and the early chapters of G. Stanley Hall's Senescence (1922) recounted descriptions from ancient medical tracts.

The decades on either side of the dawn of the twentieth century resounded with innovative efforts to discover first the pattern, then the laws, and finally the causes of aging. Each was seemingly mindful of Adolph Quetelet's 1842 declaration that "Man is born, grows up, and dies, according to certain laws that have never been properly investigated" (quoted in Achenbaum, p. 35). In France, Charcot's search for pathogens associated with aging was particularly influential. In England, Francis Galton sampled nine thousand visitors to the International Health Exposition of the 1880s to identify changes in physical characteristics. In Russia, Botkin surveyed three thousand almshouse residents in an effort to differentiate normal from pathological aging.

In the United States, Charles Minot blended Charcot's focus on cellular changes with those of nineteenth-century cytologist August Weismann and formulated a kind of a proto wear-and-tear theory that saw aging in terms of entropy and fatigue states. The field was given sharper focus with Metchnikoff's 1903 coinage of the word gerontology. Metchnikoff, who was by then director of the Pasteur Institute, focused his own explorations on ways to ward off infectious autotoxicity induced by phagocyte processes (leukocytes that ingest and destroy other cells) carried by intestinal bacteria. He advanced his prescription for hefty helpings of yogurt to quell intestinal disorders thought to engender the debilitations of age in popular and scientific publications and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his treatises The Nature of Man (1903) and The Prolongation of Life (1908).

Thus stimulated, basic biological and physiological research proceeded apace, focusing on such disparate topics as environmental and public health issues, physiological changes, lesions, and cellular-level breakdowns. In 1909, Ignatius Nascher broke ranks and proclaimed that however prevalent pathology might be, old age is not defined by pathological change. Nascher was a true interdisciplinary scientist. Stressing the importance of what might now be called social epidemiology, he dispatched teams of investigators in the New York City area to gather data he then analyzed, using statistical averages to define typical conditions and to contrast one social category with another. With G. Stanley Hall's compendium Senescence (1922), the basic parameters of modern gerontology were set as an array of behavior factors and were added to the biological substrate already enunciated. Hall's approach was also significant in that he emphasized positive attributes thought to accompany the aging process (Hendricks and Achenbaum).

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