The ticking clock of aging begins very early in our life, and with each passing year its’ effects becomes more pronounced. For we are an expression not only of our genetic inheritance, but also of our cultural reality, upbringing, life experiences and our interpretation of those life experiences.
Aging is one of those fascinating areas of study which cuts a broad slice through a range of academic disciplines and different facets of our collective social and individual lives.
It is impractical in the short space of an article to go into the subjects around of aging in any complete way, so I’ll be highlighting some of the key areas, such as:
a) How different cultures view the role of the elderly and the process of aging.
b) The impact of bio-technology on our understanding of the aging process and how it can improve the quality of our lives.
c) What should be the priorities for resources dedicated to aging?
d)Should resources be focused on disease prevention, slowing the aging process or lengthening life span?
e) What are the social and environmental costs of an aging population?
f)Is the quality of life more important than just the duration?
g)Will it create two classes of people: Those who can afford aging support and treatments and those who cannot?
h)Is the holy grail of physical immortality a childish dream? Or a work of true vision?
An Historical Perspective:
If we look back through Western history and examine some of the first written records of the attitudes to older generations, then it seems that the ancient Greeks, for instance, had a bit of a problem with the experience old age and with older people.
With their pantheon of Gods who were ageless and deathless, plus their worship of the beauty and athleticism of youth, it hardly seems surprising that many of the characteristics of old age were unattractive to them.
With its increasing frailty, increased risk of ill health and impending death, greater age seemed to have little to offer the average ancient Greek.
Another feature which opened up a generation gap was the increasing literacy of the population. This meant that oral traditions and stories which had been passed down personally from one generation to the next, could now read and studied in texts.
There was a thawing of their negative attitudes during the 5th century. This came about when some of their noble philosophers and statesmen were still active and productive in their seventies and eighties.
So in both Greek and the subsequent Roman cultures, the elderly may be given some respect for their wisdom and experience, whilst their physical frailty still created doubts as to their true value.
A lot depended on a person’s social class and wealth. The wealthy and the privileged could have their roles and status change agreeably as they got older, but for the poor it was a case of continuing to work until you drop dead.
This latter point highlights one of the key aspects of the attitudes and treatment of elderly people in Western Europe, throughout history and right up to the present day. And attitude is that your experience of old age would be greatly affected by your gender, social class, religious group and general cultural traditions.
In the middle ages, the contrast of the benefits of wisdom and experience versus the deteriorating health and vitality once again came to the forefront. Some early steps were taken to make provisions for the elderly, with a pattern developing of going into monastic retreats or lay religious communities in old age.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, it is hard to separate out views on the elderly from the prevailing Christian religion’s take on old age. For instance, the elderly could be viewed as a kind old teacher, whilst at the same time identifying vanity as a vice of old age.
Moving into the 17th and 18th centuries, the negative views on old age derived from antiquity began to be questioned, and a more positive cultural view began to emerge. However, as life expectancy ages started to increase, tensions began to surface, especially in the poorer classes. Here the harshness of economic reality caused some to question how many generations could a household support.
The coming of the industrial revolution created a whole new set of circumstances. The young tended to move away to the newly developing cities, with the older generations being left behind in the countryside to fend for themselves.
Another effect was that many parents lost their role as teachers of the new generation, as new skills, trades and professions evolved. And as people got older it brought into question their ability to keep up with technology and machines, and to their ability learn new skills as required in a fast changing environment.
This period also saw the beginning of saving societies to help people to prepare for old age, and the social provision of poor houses.
1. Handbook of the Humanities and Aging, Eds. T. R. Cole, D. D. Van Tassel and R. Kastenbaum, 1992, Springer Publishing Co., New York.
2. The Long History of Old Age, Ed. Pat Thane, 2005, Thames and Hudson, London.
The Quality Of Life:
If we look past a mere numbers game, what does ‘older’ age have to offer in terms of benefits and rewards? And how does our relative age influence our thinking about ourselves, others, and life in general?
Since our words, acting as labels, often influence our thinking. Does it help if, for instance, we re-label the latter phase of our life from ‘Old Age’ to ‘Mature Years’ or ‘Golden Years’?
There is also a relative perspective on age itself. When you’re 30 years old, then someone who is 50 is starting to look old. But to a 70 year old, a 50 year old person is still a young ‘n.
So when do we start to get old? The common retirement age of 65 is a relatively new invention. It was created by the Prussian general Otto Von Bismark, when he was pressed to give a pension to his old and loyal soldiers. ‘What’ he asked ‘is their average life-span?’ When he was advised that it was 66, he granted them a pension from the age of 65. And the benchmark of 65 has continued in estern societies to this day.
There seems to be a fluid trade-off between age and youth, depending on how we are defining the quality of life. There are many different ingredients in the quality of a life, and within these qualities there is room for several perspectives.
When we are younger we may have more energy, however what experience and skills do we have to channel it through? In contrast, an older person may have less energy, but they may well be able to channel it more skilfully and they may be more serene about the outcome.
With greater age, there comes the potential for a wider range of interests, which we have cultivated through the years. This range of interests and skills can seriously enrich our lives, if we chose to express them.
An older person may not have the capacity to do hard labour, or to fight in wars, but does everyone wants those anyway.
So our perspective is an important factor in our perception of the quality of life in older age. And this will come from a combination of personal choice, subjective experience and our cultural conditioning.
What can also influence our quality perception of older age, is our definition of pleasure. Whilst it may seem self-evident that our tastes and needs do change over our lifetime, if we persist in defining pleasure in terms of the pursuits of youth, are we misleading ourselves and setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Our self-perception can also have a bearing on our experience of older age. How do we define ourselves? What do we believe ourselves to be? If our belief system only allows us to be bodies, then we are severely limiting our self-view and subsequent experience in older age.
So, in a way, our personal and collective views on older age reveal a lot about our understanding of humanity, and what it means to be human.
Reference/Source: The Long Life, by Helen Small, 2007, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Medical Technology and Aging:
One of the most promising areas of medical research from the point of view of an aging population is that of DNA manipulation. And one particular technique called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT).
This SCNT procedure involves taking the out the nucleus of an egg cell, and then placing it in the envelope surrounding it the somatic (body) cell to be created. An electrical cell is then sent through the cell to break the boundary between the nucleus and somatic and thus fool the egg into thinking it has been fertilised. Once this happens the cell starts to divide in the normal way.
This method can be used to create increasingly complex body parts, and even complete organs.
And because it uses the DNA material from the patient, these cell replacements do not get rejected by the patient’s body. Hence the patient does not need to take immune suppressant drugs to combat the problem of organ donor rejection.
It also has the additional advantage in that donor organ shortages become a thing of the past.
Some examples of uses of this DNA technology are as follows:
a) Parkinson’s Disease:
In this scenario, cloned dopamine cells can be fed back into the brain, thus relieving the symptoms of this highly distressing disease.
b) Diabetes (Type 1):
Clones insulin producing B-cells can be created for the pancreas, to assist in the natural production of insulin.
c) The Immune System:
In this procedure, a patient’s immune system can be regenerated through cloned cells.
Another interesting finding is that even if cells are cloned from original cells which have reached the end of their natural life, the cloned cell seems to go back to the beginning and starts its life all over again.
This is certainly one of the most exciting areas of DNA medical technology which is here right now, and advancing all the time.
Reference/Sources: Robert Lanza, MD, Aging, Biotechnology and The Future, Eds. C. Y. Read, R. C. Green and M. A. Singer, 2008, John Hopkins University Press, USA.
The End of Aging:
The reality of our aging touches most of us, and when beginning to explore this topic as mentioned earlier, it has many different aspects: Personal, family, social, economic and scientific.
For instance, take the question who is it that ages? And are our mental and physical aging processes and experience different phenomena? What are the social, economic and environmental costs of our living longer? And so on.
One of the most aggressive proponents of dealing with aging and not simply accepting it as the way it is, is Dr. Aubery de Grey.
In his fascinating book called Ending Aging, he explains how his thinking process shifted on the often complex subject of biological aging. So, rather than only focusing on understanding the metabolic process which creates our aging, what if we sought to understand and to address the damage which aging causes to our bodies.
This paradigm shift in thinking, which moves away from the seemingly endless complexity of the underlying biological processes, to the relatively simpler issues of damage management is explained in detail in his book.
Running alongside this approach is also the concept that addressing the aging issue is not only about adding digits to our total age. It is also concerned with reversing the side effects of aging, so we live healthier and active lives for longer.
Reference/Source: Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime by Aubery de Grey with Michael Rae.
© David R. Durham
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