Gerontology (social sciences and humanities)

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Social gerontology

Social gerontology is a multi-disciplinary field of research, teaching and service that specializes in studying or working with older adults, and reaches across a variety of social sciences, applied social sciences, and humanities.

Social gerontologists may have degrees or training in social work, nursing, psychology, sociology, anthropology, demography, gerontology, economics, history, speech pathology, audiology, physical therapy, occupational therapy or any of a wide variety of other fields. Gerontologists are responsible for educating, researching, and advancing the broader causes of older people by delivering services to older people, 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.

Note that some early pioneers, such as Michel-Eugene Chevreul, who himself lived to be 102 in the 1880s, believed that aging itself should be a science to be studied. The word gerontology itself was coined circa 1903.[1]

More People are Living Longer and Better

The central facts in the rise of all facets of gerontology all stem from the demographic reality that more people are living longer, and as a result there are more people in the world. What once were rarities - great grandparents living to see their great grandchildren, healthy people living from a quarter to a third of their lives in retirement, large numbers of people living beyond the age of 100, and dramatic rises in the "average age" of entire national populations around the developed world - have become everyday realities. Fortunately, these manifold changes came at a time of unprecedented wealth so that many of today's older people are not only living longer. They are also living better than almost any elderly populations in human history.

Human Life Expectancy

The fact that more people are living longer and better, however, is a set of circumstances that must be examined closely to fully appreciate. One of the major demographic fallacies that the recent study of human aging in gerontology has cleared up (although it is still widely believed) is that full life expectancy for adults was dramatically shorter in the past than at present. While there is no doubt that there have been major statistical increases in average life expectancy over the past century, until quite recently these were due almost exclusively to decreases in infant mortality. This is a relatively simple matter: When more infants survive infancy and childhood, they grow up to be adults, and eventually, old people. It is this simple reality which is at the heart of the current world-wide "aging revolution." This effect has been further cumulative at all stages of the life span, as further (but much more minor, until quite recently) decreases in mortality have occurred at all ages. However, the view that this is primarily biological - that modern humans in general have the innate biological capacity to live dramatically longer than earlier humans - is simply not the case. This mistaken view is seemingly made more plausible by earlier, and even more dramatic, increases in life expectancy (and comparable increases in height) that have, in fact, occurred over the past several millennia. Thus, it is not at all unusual to encounter suggestions that overall human life expectancy at the dawn of the agricultural revolution 10,000 BC was 14 years old, and later, during the Roman Empire rose only to 21 years old. All of this is largely a statistical anomaly. Demographers do not actually observe individual life lifespans, but rather determine the average life expectancy of populations indirectly from birth and death reports, and therein lies a world of difference. In reality, the dramatic quantitative increases in average life expectancy between 1900 and 2000 have been largely due to dramatic decreases in infant and childhood mortality. It wasn't so much that people, on the whole were living dramatically longer, as it was that vastly more people were surviving the first years of life.

There is a vast difference between average life expectancy statistics and the typical lived human life span. Thousands of years ago, an Old Testament writer in Psalms 90 spoke of people living "three score and ten" as the fullness of life, suggesting that even several thousand years ago, adults who survived childhood may have expected to lived seventy years.[2] A human population that normally lived only 14 years would be seriously on the verge of extinction. There is no evidence to suggest rapid evolution upward in the age of puberty within the last few thousand years. Thus, since sizeable proportions of 14 year olds would not even have reached sexual maturity, and, even if sexually mature at 10, would not have lived long enough to successful raise their children. Although a life span of 21 years would be more plausible from a reproductive standpoint, documentary evidence from the Roman Empire also largely refutes this notion: "Pliny the Elder" did not die at the ripe old age of 22!


  1. Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. According to the early modern translators, who rendered this idea of 70 years into English as "three score and ten", the Psalmist wrote: "The days of our years are three score years and ten/ and if by reason of strength they be four score years,/ yet is their strength labor and sorrow/ for it is soon cut off, and we fly away."