Throughout history people have been fascinated by the aging process, though it’s only been within the last 50 years that the science of aging has dramatically grown. Some individuals live healthy lives in their 80s, 90s and 100s, while others develop multiple conditions much earlier that decrease their quality of life or shorten their lifespan. The vast differences in how people age has led to booming fields in multiple disciplines.
Over the past few decades, the study of aging has branched out into several specialized areas including gerontology, geriatrics, geropsychiatry and geroscience.
Gerontology is the scientific study of the aging process and old age. It examines specific lifestyle, social, economic, and health-related issues associated with aging.
Geriatrics is the highly specialized field of medicine that focuses on physical and neurological health conditions and works to manage symptoms, increase quality of life and extend the life span.
Geropsychiatry is a subspecialty in psychiatry that seeks to diagnose and treat age-related emotional and mental disorders.
The newest and very exciting field known as geroscience is the study of aging that combines the biology of diseases (heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease) with the biology of aging (genetics, inflammation, stress response and cellular damage). The field is intuitive since there is a close relationship between aging biology and the increased risk for age-related chronic illnesses.
In the early 20th century the main cause of death was infectious diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis and most people were fortunate to make it into their 40s or 50s. This is not the case in the US in the 21st century, as the life span continues to increase, causing a “graying” of America. And the good news for older adults is that, contrary to common perception, the vast majority of seniors report being satisfied or very satisfied with their lives.
As science continues to explore the many facets of aging, health conditions should improve, quality of life is likely to increase, and perhaps people will live longer than ever before.