Science of Ageing in Its Infancy

Photo: Old woman and old man plaing pool together

Being old and enjoying life: that
is no contradiction any more;
© Picture Disk

Sports, social policy, psychology, biology and care are part of a gerontology's student time-table which makes him a real all-rounder. Gerontology – from greek gerontas, the age, and logos, the science – seeks to examine different areas such as the ageing process itself as well as life at an old age with all social aspects.

However, one central question plays an important role: what does ageing actually mean? Still nobody has an answer to that since the human body grows old influenced by many different aspects. Illnesses, the psyche, life-style, genes - they all are more or less involved in the ageing process. Furthermore, the working situation, culture and social life of old people in past, present and future times play a role.

Gerontologists try to strengthen the interdisciplinarity between areas that deal with ageing. Different results are to complement each other and, thus, hopefully are going to help to get a broader picture. This can be of help, for example, in prevention: When biologists find new biomarkers for a degenerative disease, physicians can include them into their diagnosis and psychologists have to convince people to adapt their life style in order to prevent such diseases.

The road to successful interidisciplinarity is not easy, though. „Try to join a biologist with a psychologist in a way that something useful comes out of it. It is often impossible since they speak different languages“, explains Thomas Klie, the President of the German Society for Gerontology and Geriatrics (DGGG). „If, however, it does work, there are in part true light bulb moments resulting in new conclusions - thanks to the exchange of ideas.“

Always in the prime

At the beginning of the 20th century German gerontologists joined systematically which resulted in a research association. „The term gerontology was found for the first time in a document dating back to the Middle Ages - in a purely medical context though“, says Klie. The focus on senior citizens in terms of medicine for elderly people or geriatrics, a branch of gerontology, started long ago.

However, senior citizens back then and today are a completely different matter. A wrinkly old man of the Middle Ages is a modern man living his best years today which basically means that getting old is not just summing up years. This is no news for people living today, but gerontologists had to work hard on changing the picture of being old in our heads during the last century. Today, ageing is not perceived as a doom anymore, but as an individual process and independent period of life which can be lived with joy. Doing sports, working, hobbies – all this is not contradictory to old age anymore.

Rising life expectancy and a collectively ageing society stress the importance of gerontology: It can be observed all over the world: The older a population becomes, the more attention is paid to gerontology. Demographic changes raise attention. Questions concerned with gerontology become important for society and politics. Nevertheless, gerontology has always been treated as an orphan in the German sciences. Two chairs of geriatrics, four for gerontology, four more endowed chairs – that is all.

„Germany ranges far below international average“, Klie argues. „In many other countries, any university offering medical sciences at least holds a geriatric chair, too.“ Regarding career, gerontology is still disadvantageous for many scientists, he adds, because in Germany the main focus of funding rests with single disciplines. Interdisciplinary working scientists and projects are still barely approved. „From a gerontological view, Germany is a developing country“, Klie sums up.

Anke Barth