It may be said that the history of gerontology begins with agriculture; prior to this the hunter-gatherer societies that existed could only support a marginal existence: food supply was short; frequent movement a necessity. These and other reasons meant that extremely few reached 'old age'. However, it could be argued that in a society with a life expectancy of 14 (such as 10,000 BC), being '40' was 'old'.
Things changed with the coming of agriculture. A more stable food supply and the lack of frequent movement meant that humans could now survive longer, and beginning perhaps around 4000 BC, a regular segment of the population began to attain 'old age' in places such as Mesopotamia and the Indus river valleys. Agriculture didn't simply bring a steady food supply; it also suddenly made older persons an economic benefit instead of a burden. Older persons could stay and watch the farm (or children); make pottery or jewelry, and perform social functions, such as story-telling (oral tradition, religion, etc). and teaching the younger generation techniques for farming, tool-making, etc.
After this change, the views of elder persons in societies waxed and waned, but generally the proportion of the population over 50 or 60 remained small. Note that in ancient Egypt, Pharaoh Pepi II was said to have lived to 100 years old. Certainly Ramses II lived to about 90; modern scientific testing of his mummy supports the written record. Ancient Greeks valued old persons for their wisdom (some reaching 80, 90, or 100 years old), while old age was devalued in Roman times.
In the medieval Islamic world, elderly people were valued by Muslim physicians. Avicenna's The Canon of Medicine (1025) was the first book to offer instruction for the care of the aged, foreshadowing modern gerontology and geriatrics. In a chapter entitled "Regimen of Old Age", Avicenna was concerned with how "old folk need plenty of sleep", how their bodies should be anointed with oil, and recommended exercises such as walking or horse-riding. Thesis III of the Canon discussed the diet suitable for old people, and dedicated several sections to elderly patients who become constipated.
The Canon of Medicine recognized four periods of life: the period of growth, prime of life, period of elderly decline (from forty to sixty), and decrepit age. He states that during the last period, "there is hardness of their bones, roughness of the skin, and the long time since they produced semen, blood and vaporal breath". However, he agreed with Galen that the earth element is more prominent in the aged and decrepit than in other periods. Avicenna did not agree with the concept of infirmity, however, stating: "There is no need to assert that there are three states of the human body—sickness, health and a state which is neither health nor disease. The first two cover everything."
The famous Arabic physician, Ibn Al-Jazzar Al-Qayrawani (Algizar, circa 898-980), also wrote a special book on the medicine and health of the elderly, entitled Kitab Tibb al-Machayikh or Teb al-Mashaikh wa hefz sehatahom. He also wrote a book on sleep disorders and another one on forgetfulness and how to strengthen memory, entitled Kitab al-Nissian wa Toroq Taqwiati Adhakira, and a treatise on causes of mortality entitled Rissala Fi Asbab al-Wafah. Another Arabic physician in the 9th century, Ishaq ibn Hunayn (died 910), the son of Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, wrote a Treatise on Drugs for Forgetfulness (Risalah al-Shafiyah fi adwiyat al-nisyan).
In medieval Europe on the other hand, during its Dark Ages, negative opinions of the elderly prevailed; old women were often burned at the stake as witches. However, with the coming of the Renaissance old age returned to favor in Europe, as persons such as Michelangelo and Andrea Doria exemplified the ideals of living long, active, productive lives.
While the number of aged humans, and the maximum ages lived to, tended to increase in every century since the 1300s, society tended to consider caring for an elderly relative as a family issue. It was not until the coming of the Industrial Revolution with its techniques of mass production that ideas shifted in favor of a societal care-system. Care homes for the aged emerged in the 1800s. Note that some early pioneers, such as Michel Eugène Chevreul, who himself lived to be 102 in the 1880s, believed that aging itself should be a science to be studied. The word itself was coined circa 1903.
It was not until the 1940s, however, that pioneers like James Birren began organizing 'gerontology' into its own field. Recognizing that there were experts in many fields all dealing with the elderly, it became apparent that a group like the Gerontological Society of America was needed (founded in 1945). Two decades later, James Birren was appointed as the founding director of the first academic research center devoted exclusively to the study of aging, the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California. In 1975, the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology became the first academic gerontology department, with Birren as its founding dean.
In the 1950s to the 1970s, the field was mainly social and concerned with issues such as nursing homes and health care. However, research by Leonard Hayflick in the 1960s (showing that a cell line culture will only divide about 50 times) helped lead to a separate branch, biogerontology. It became apparent that simply 'treating' aging wasn't enough. Finding out about the aging process, and what could be done about it, became an issue.
The biogerontological field was also bolstered when research by Cynthia Kenyon and others demonstrated that life extension was possible in lower life forms such as fruit flies, worms, and yeast. So far, however, nothing more than incremental (marginal) increases in life span have been seen in any mammalian species.
Today, social gerontology remains the largest sector of the field, but the biogerontological side is seen as being the 'hot' side. Indeed, some have said that social gerontologists look to the past; biogerontologists look to the future.
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