A wee-bee of Gerontology: From history to theory (part 1)

Hanish Bhurtun

On a sunny morning, you are just a few weeks to celebrate your 69th birthday, you get up and make breakfast and head out to work for couple of hours. In the evening, you are heading to the gym for couple of exercise sessions so that you can keep fit.

The above scenario is not a pipe dream or fiction anymore especially in Europe: the trends mentioned above are the future in the European lifestyle. From healthy living through age-friendly design to flexible working after 65 – these either are happening now or are in the pipeline. Countries throughout Europe are working hard, to bend the rules and laws of their respective countries to increase the working age. The understanding of the “old man” has evolved from past to present.

Ageing as a noun is “the process of growing old”

For an understanding of Gerontology, it is important to understand the terms such as ageing and age, because for the layman those terms might be nearly the same, which, in fact are not. Ageing as describe by Oxford dictionary (2017) is both a noun and an adjective. Ageing as a noun is “the process of growing old”. However “age” is at the same time considered to be a verb and a noun (Vincent 2006, 681-698), it implies for equally as “a process and a set of categories.” At the same time, the term ”ageing” is referred to a time change of parts of the social and biological path (Vincent 2006, 681-698).  On the flip side of the coin, gerontology is considered as “the science of ageing” (Kirkwood 2002, 737-745). Gerontology in itself encompasses many sub fields, for instance bio-gerontology investigates the process of ageing itself signifying the science behind biological ageing (Post and Binstock 2004) while social gerontology looks at the costs of phases in a precise age-based addition of “normative expectations”(Vincent 2006, 681-698).  Gerontology is at present a mainstream area of research, while in far past it was just pure thoughts blueprints. Indeed, time and society have had both to a great extent swayed the study of gerontology  (Beaujot 2012, 145-147; Kirkwood 2002, 737-745; Post and Binstock 2004)

Gerontology investigates the qualities and characteristics of old people. Now the human species understand that it is impossible to live forever, and because death is a reality we put a great effort to extend the human life span at the same time being healthy that is free from diseases. It should be also noted that combating disease at this point may increase the life expectancy, but according to some bio-gerontologists, they will in the future also be able to increase lifespan. At present most gerontologists however tend to pressurise their aims in terms of “health span” – that is to extend life years without diseases (Vincent 2006, 681-698).

Gerontologists and other experts working in the field of health, whether biologists, medics or social scientists, all are working towards extending life free from diseases by investigating continuously the process of ageing, however, extending lifespan free from illness creates the distinction between youth and old age that the only difference between this two would mean the disease status among old aged  (Kirkwood 2002, 737-745; Vincent 2006, 681-698).  Furthermore, extending lifespan forever would mean evading the natural consequences of nature, implying that humans would forget death, and devalue the meaning of life, not to say meaningless life (Beaujot 2012, 145-147; Vincent 2006, 681-698).

Gerontology investigates the qualities and characteristics of old people

In terms of history, it can be utterly certain that death was known to knocking the door of life, in an early stage of life, as the average life expectancy 1000 B.C was around 18 years old  (Woodruff and Birren 1975, 24). Gradually the life expectancy increased, as we know it now. The existence of different themes among different cultures that talks about and main goal is to be able to prolong life. Myths in the far past literature has been revolving around one of the three basic themes. For example, the antediluvian theme presents Adam for having lived for 930 years as well as Noah for 950 years in the book of Genesis. The above-mentioned theme, as it can be deducted shows that people believed that in the past the lifespan was longer as what it is now.

The hyperborean theme on the other hand whose origins are from the Greeks, have the belief that in some far place there exists some people who “enjoy” an extraordinarily long life compared to others (Woodruff and Birren 1975, 15).  It should be noted that the word enjoy has been put into parenthesis to confirm that indeed human beings enjoy – meaning want, like and are happy to live longer thus paving the way to the study of gerontology as we know it now. The third theme, called rejuvenation and as the name suggest the myth behind it is some magical fountain whose water reverses the process of ageing (Woodruff and Birren 1975, 16).

The above themes had two things in common, firstly they all pointed out to a longer life span and secondly none of them talks about illness. It was a perfect world, the past. The last theme can be placed under light again concerning the waters of the magical fountain. If in those myths, people talked about magical waters that anti-ages people, another name to it could be the anti-aging water. As such, in the twentieth century the term anti-ageing medicine (Post and Binstock 2004, 3-5) has been coined, whose desired effects are same as the waters of the magical fountain – to slow, pause or reverse the process of ageing (Vincent 2006, 681-698).


Beaujot, Roderic. ”International Handbook of Population Aging.” Canadian Studies in Population 39, no. 1-2 (2012): 145-147.

Woodruff DS and Birren JE (eds.) Aging – Scientific Perspectives and Social Issues. New York: D. van Nostrand Company, 1975.

Kirkwood, Thomas B. L. Evolution of Ageing. Vol. 123, 2002, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047637401004195.

Post, Stephen Garrard and Robert H. Binstock. The Fountain of Youth : Cultural, Scientific, and Ethical Perspectives on a Biomedical Goal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Vincent, John A. ”Ageing Contested: Anti-Ageing Science and the Cultural Construction of Old Age.” Sociology-the Journal of the British Sociological Association 40, no. 4 (AUG, 2006): 681-698.


Hanish Bhurtun, Lecturer,  Karelia University of Applied Sciences