From the time of conception onward, humans are constantly aging, developing, and getting older. Although not a new area of investigation and study, gerontology (operationally defined as the scientific study of the aging process) has until recently taken a back seat to many other areas of scientific investigation. One reason for this is that many individuals do not want to think about aging and getting older, although these processes are inevitable. However, the study of aging and gerontology (as well as geriatrics) has taken center stage within many areas, including biology, psychology, sociology, and education, among others. Questions about how we age, why we age, why some age faster (or slower) than others, and diseases and deficits associated with aging and gerontology are now issues of vast importance worldwide. Related issues concern quality of life as we age, nursing home placement, and therapeutic interventions to slow down or halt the aging process to name but a few. Gerontology is now a "hot" topic and one worthy of continued investigation. One need only consult sources on sociological and demographic information to realize that people are living longer and that with this increase in longer life comes more risk for age-related disease and disorder. Understanding the aging process (gerontology) is of critical importance on many levels.
What is gerontology and why should we study it?
As mentioned previously, gerontology is considered the scientific study of aging and the aging process. As with many English words, the derivation comes from Greek, with ology meaning "the study of" and gero meaning elders. A similar, but different, term is geriatrics, which is typically referred to as a specialty area of study within various health care fields (e.g., social work, medicine). Gerontology is multidisciplinary, with many areas contributing to its knowledge base, including psychology, sociology, education, social work, and medicine. The multidisciplinary nature of gerontology makes good sense because to understand gerontology and aging is to reveal how several of these areas interact with each other and influence how and why we age. Several theoretical views of aging and gerontology also advocate this interactive nature of the aging process, suggesting that gerontology is best viewed from several different contexts (historical, cultural, societal). For these reasons, gerontology has becomes one of the fastest growing areas of study in the United States and, more important, the rest of the world.
What factors have increased the popularity of gerontology?
Radical changes have been slowly evolving with regard to aging and gerontology, and these changes relate to several factors, including dramatic increases in the proportion of older adults older than 65, a lowered birth rate, advances and increases in how long a person can live (life expectancy), and the graying of the current baby boomers. Because of these (and other) factors, it is estimated that within the next 20 to 25 years, about 1 in every 4 older adults will be 65 years of age or older. Additionally, one of the faster growing segments of the population is the so-called old-old, those individuals 85 years of age and older. In fact, another fast-growing group is those who live to be 100 and beyond (the so-called centenarians). Because women historically tend to outlive men, these increases will be especially relevant for women as they get older. One downside of such longevity is the undeniable fact that age is the number one risk factor for several age-related diseases and disorders, including Alzheimer's disease. It is estimated that 50% of individuals age 85 and older have some form of Alzheimer-type dementia. The paradox, then, becomes what to do with an advancing aging population that shows increased risk for a number of age-related diseases and disorders. Adequately addressing and dealing with this paradox is precisely where gerontology fits in to the larger picture of aging and geriatrics.
Theoretical Issues in Gerontology
Like any science, gerontology is rooted in and driven by a number of theoretical issues that highlight the somewhat controversial nature of the aging process. These controversies exist because there is no one crucial factor or variable that causes aging and gerontology. In fact, some argue that the aging process is akin to a disease, whereas others argue that aging and gerontology are normal processes. Because of the interactive nature of aging and gerontology discussed earlier in this entry, it is not surprising that such controversies exist. Although some would argue that such controversies are not healthy for the study of aging and gerontology, in fact it is precisely these controversies that are making the scientific study of aging more of an accepted discipline worthy of continued study. One such theoretical view that has shown continued popularity is the life span model of aging. It is this model that accurately outlines aging and gerontology as a contextually dependent and highly interactive series of stages or processes that result in aging. The life span model posses seven distinct criteria--that aging and development are lifelong, multidimensional, multidirectional, plastic, multidisciplinary, and contextual, and include issues in growth (gains) as well as decay (losses). This theoretical model has been the dominant view in aging and gerontology for the past 20 years and shows no signs of decreasing in its popularity with a variety of researchers, teachers, and doctors.
How do you study gerontology?
Like any other science, several methodologies and statistical techniques are available for the study of aging and gerontology. The two most typical methodologies used in aging and gerontological research are the cross-sectional and longitudinal methods. Both have costs and benefits, and the type used is actually related to what specific hypothesis (or hypotheses) a researcher is interested in. For instance, many gerontology studies (typically) compare a group of young adults (usually ages 18 to 22) and a group of older adults (usually age 65 and older) on some series of tests or experimental manipulations. This crosssectional method is efficient and less time consuming than the longitudinal method and is frequently used. However, the issue of cohort effects is always potentially confounding because these types of designs are not good at controlling for these effects. Longitudinal studies are more cumbersome to complete, especially because the researcher is testing the same person (or persons) over an extended period of time (usually years). Problems like subject attrition, subject death, and cost are usually factors that prevent researchers from using a longitudinal type of methodology. However, similar problems exist for the longitudinal methodology as well, and confounding cohort variables are also possible. Sequential research designs, however, are possible alternatives to crosssectional and longitudinal methods, and the age cohort effects can be teased apart. One method is not better than another, and it is primarily up to the investigator to decide which methodology offers the most benefit with the least amount of cost. Some of the most prominent and classic studies in gerontology, however, are longitudinal studies and include the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging and the Seattle Longitudinal Study of Adult Intelligence.
This brief review has highlighted what gerontology is, how it is studied scientifically, and what these results mean in the grand scheme of things. However, the current status of aging and gerontology also begs the question of what the future holds for these topics and their associated challenges. First, the issue of dramatic increases in the numbers of older adults diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease (and other age-related disorders) will need careful (and immediate) attention. Training more professionals in the areas of aging and gerontology will be a priority in the coming decades across a number of disciplines. Likewise, and somewhat related, are how attitudes and perceptions of age and aging can be changed to a more positive view. Older people face discrimination, ageism, and prejudice all because of their age. This is especially problematic for older women and older women of color. This negative view is not universal, and it may be possible to integrate the more positive aspects of aging from other cultures into ours. These are the challenges posed by the field of gerontology and are challenges that can and should be taken up by the current and future generations of gerontological scholars who study, examine, and interpret the vast age differences and age similarities that exist.
American Psychological Association Division 20, http://apadiv20.phhp.ufl.edu/
American Society on Aging, http://www.asaging.org/
Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1988). Personality in adulthood: A six year longitudinal study of self-reports and spouse ratings on the NEO Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 853-863.
Foss, P. W., & Clark, M. C. (2004). Human aging. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Gerontological Society of America, http://www.geron.org
Schaie, K. W. (1983). The Seattle Longitudinal Study: A twenty-one year investigation of psychometric intelligence. In K. W. Schaie (Ed.), Longitudinal studies of adult personality development (pp. 64-155). New York: Guilford Press.
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