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Gerontological Perspectives On Aging And Old Age

Gerontology involves gaining a scientific understanding of processes of aging, processes that take place simultaneously on several levels. Aging occurs at the biological and physiological levels, for example, as the ability of cells to replicate themselves decreases with aging or as respiratory and cardiovascular systems typically become less efficient. Aging is also characterized by a series of interrelated psychological processes that may manifest themselves in changes in the speed with which information is processed or in changes in short-term recall. Aging is also a social process reflecting sequences of roles assumed throughout life and transitions from one role to another (e.g., from employee to retiree, from parent to grandparent, from spouse to widow). When we think of someone as "growing old," we are speaking of the outcomes of these and other processes that take place simultaneously, but at different rates for different people. A thirty-five-year-old grandmother or an eighty-year-old "master" athlete whose cardiovascular system is functioning at the level of a forty-year-old illustrate how processes of aging may vary from one individual to another.

Although we most often think of aging as an individual phenomenon—as what happens to persons as they grow older—it is also true that both aging processes and what constitutes old age are socially defined or socially "constructed." They are the product of historical, social, political, and economic forces. For administrative purposes, for example, when someone "becomes" old varies widely. One needs to be at least sixty-five years old to be eligible to receive full Social Security benefits (although this changed in 2002, when the eligibility age began to climb gradually to sixty-seven) and sixty to be eligible for programs and services under the Older Americans Act, but only forty to be covered under the provisions of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. How we conceive of the capabilities of older persons also varies from one time to another. A sixty-five-year-old might be considered too old to work during a recession when unemployment rates are high, but that same person may be a highly desirable employee when the economy is booming, unemployment rates are low, and labor in short supply. As a stage of the life course, old age during America's colonial period was a far different experience from what it is during the first years of the twenty-first century and from what it probably will be when the entire baby boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964) has reached old age in the year 2030. What it is like to be old also varies from one group to another within a society, just as it varies between societies with different cultural traditions. At any particular time, the financial situation of a typical seventy-five-year-old African American woman will differ dramatically from that of a typical seventy-five-year-old white male. And the intergenerational experience of living in a Japanese family, with its tradition of multigenerational living arrangements, will differ from that of the American family where the norm has been "intimacy at a distance."

Because aging is a multilevel passage and because old age is socially constructed, the study of aging and of old age necessarily relies on the contributions of a number of scientific disciplines. For this reason, gerontology is considered a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary field of inquiry, and professional organizations such as the Gerontological Society of America count among their members researchers and scholars from a wide variety of disciplines.

In the basic sciences, research on the biological aspects of aging is being conducted in such fields as biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, endocrinology, genetics, immunology, nutrition, pathology, pharmacology, and physiology. Medical and health scientists from specialties such as cardiology, neurology, oncology, and orthopedics are studying the causes, consequences, and treatment of illness and disease; the epidemiology (distribution) of physical well-being; and factors associated with the use of health services by older persons. Social and behavioral research in gerontology similarly includes contributions from scientists with many different disciplinary backgrounds: anthropology, demography, economics, geography, history, political science, psychology, public health, sociology, and statistics. Our understanding of aging and the experience of being an older person is also enhanced by the work of scholars from humanities disciplines such as art, literature, music, philosophy, and religion. Gerontological knowledge has benefited, too, from research conducted by investigators from a variety of professions, such as architecture, nursing, physical therapy, and social work.

Gerontology, then, is a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary area of scientific inquiry dedicated to increasing our understanding of aging and old age. But just as gerontology comprises a wide array of disciplines permitting research at the intersections of two or more traditional fields, its boundaries are flexible in another important way. We have learned that the nature of old age is often a product of earlier life experiences and that processes of aging begin long before one is old. This recognition has led gerontologists to begin to take a longer view of factors that affect aging and old age and to attempt to locate and identify influences that occur in earlier stages of life. Such an approach is variously known as a life course, life span, or life cycle perspective, and it has drawn our attention to the ways in which late life characteristics may have their origin in events occurring long before old age. Glen Elder, for example, has shown that the current attitudes and values of older persons were shaped by their experience during the Great Depression. And in a fascinating project known as the Nun Study, autobiographies written by nuns when they first entered a convent, at an average age of twenty-three, were examined for their linguistic ability or idea density. Over sixty years after the autobiographies were written and upon postmortem examination of the brains of deceased nuns, the idea density scores from early life were highly correlated with the presence and severity of Alzheimer's disease in late life (Snowdon, Greiner, and Markesbery). Studies such as these have made gerontologists increasingly aware of the need to examine early antecedents of late-life behaviors, characteristics, and circumstances.

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