As we grow into old age, our bodies and minds undergo changes, changes that affect our moods, relationships, the ways our bodies handle illnesses, and our physical appearances.
Physically, a decrease in subcutaneous fat and loss of water retention causes our skin to sag and develop wrinkles. Losses in muscle mass, bone density, and the number of nerve cells can mean slower movement, poor balance, and a greater chance of injury.
Psychological changes that accompany physical changes might lead to mental disorders, such as depression. These mental disorders contribute to a loss of interest in socializing and finding meaningful hobbies or volunteer activities. In effect, aging causes a seismic shift in how individuals view their lives.
The field of Gerontology exists to understand and help deal with these changes by studying both the physical and mental aspects of aging.
Questions Posed to the Gerontologists due to Aging Process
- How do motor abilities change with age, and how does this affect our personal and social functioning?
- How do diseases and illnesses vary with age?
- What kinds of services and programs exist to assist with growing older?
- How do we extend longevity of life and maintain healthiness as we age?
- How can we stay active and productive in our older years?
Simply stated, gerontology is the study of the social, psychological, and biological changes in older people as they age. It is a multi-disciplinary field that draws from the expertise of multiple professions to encompass everything from research, to care, to advocacy for aging adults.
While the effects of aging may not be entirely preventable, there are ways to age successfully and maintain good health into old age.
The Study of Adult Development at Harvard University, perhaps the most thorough study into aging, has followed two groups of men from adolescence to old age. It has examined their physical and mental health, and has gained insight into what factors contribute to healthy aging.
Research in the field examines the biological aspects of aging, from why our hair color changes to why memories falter for some, but not for others. Studies look at developing new medicines and treatments for those who are aging, some of which can extend longevity of life. Gerontologists help scientists to create medicines to combat illnesses and disorders that affect older adults like insomnia, depression), anxiety, Alzheimer's, arthritis, and diabetes.
Some older adults need assistance getting to and from a location. Gerontology examines the mobility needs of the aging by helping to develop products like walkers or wheelchairs. For example, a study conducted at Brown University found that use of walkers, canes, and wheelchairs significantly reduced the need for caregiver help in everyday activities, such as going to the bathroom. Gerontologists utilize this information to find new ways to accommodate the mobility needs of older adults.
Gerontologists also examine the social aspects of aging such as re-marrying, finding hobbies, maintaining friendships, and retirement living. Researchers at Brigham Young University have found that social relationships are strongly linked to not only mental health, but longevity of life. The study, published by the Public Library of Science Journal, indicated a 50% increase in survival for those with strong social relationships. Gerontologists can use this data to help older adults maintain strong social relationships, and provide psychological care to those who are struggling to maintain those relationships.
Gerontology is also committed to debunking myths and taboos associated with aging. In “The Facts on Aging Quiz” by Duke University professor Erdman Palmore, he outlines common myths associated with old age and dispels them. Palmore contends that loss of sexuality, inability to work, widespread depression and senility, inability to learn new things, and fears of isolation are unfounded. Many older adults live healthy, social lives well into their senior years.
Why Should You be Interested in Gerontology?
Gerontology is a growing field in psychology that will become even more important over the next 30 years. The number of older adults in the world's population is higher than it has ever been, and that number will only increase as medical progress extends our lifeline. The older population in 2030 is projected to be twice as large as in 2000, growing from 35 million to 71.5 million, and representing nearly 20% of the total U.S. population, according to a report from agingstats.gov.
Gerontologists work with a variety of professionals to help provide adequate care for older adults. As our population ages, the demand for caregivers will increase. Gerontologists help to address what older adults need, and work with caregivers to ensure those needs are met. Also, with an influx of older individuals, more goods and services targeted at that demographic will spur job creation in the field.
Senior-focused services like health care, dentistry, and mental health services are being developed and refined by gerontologists to provide adequate care.
Gerontology is Widespread
With a larger percentage of the population approaching what some call old age, the research conducted in the field of Gerontology is applied by those working in a variety of settings and organizations. Since we all interact with older adults daily, it's important to understand the physical and mental changes taking place in their lives. The following are a few of the organizations that apply gerontology concepts and research:
- Community organizations
- Government agencies
- Non-profit agencies
- Health care facilities
- Physical Therapy
- Social Services
- Social Services
Gerontology attracts those who have compassion for older adults, and a desire to make their lives as healthy, productive, and enjoyable as possible. And with the lifespan of our population increasing yearly, the need for more research and study in gerontology is critical.
If you are interested in making the lives of older adults enjoyable and fulfilling through empirically-based studies on gerontology, consider a psychology career with a gerontology focus. To learn more, contact schools offering degrees in gerontology, or a related field in psychology.