There are no diseases peculiar to old age and very few from which it is exempt.
-Alfred Worcester (1855-1951)
Twenty percent of all humans who have ever lived past the age of 65 are alive today. And these older individuals are biologically younger than the old of generations past: A landmark 1993 study by Duke University found that the percentage of older Americans in good health is growing at a greater rate than the percentage of those with disabilities.

Between 1960 and 1990, while the overall U.S. population grew 39%, the ranks of those 85 and older jumped 232% (the over 65 group increasing 89% while the number of those under 25 grew by only 13%). A child born today who lives to age 65 is ten times more likely to reach 100 than people born one century ago (click here to see life expectancies at age 65 from 1910 on).  Now in the year 2000, there are an estimated  100,000 people aged 100+, up from 32,000 in 1990.  This should keep Willard Scott busy!


The news was good in the September 1997 press release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Life expectancy of Americans reached an all-time high in 1996 of 76.1, indicating a continuing gain in the battle against premature death. Click here for Census report showing changes in life-expectancy of 65-year-olds over the twentieth century (pdf format).

The quest for immortality seems to be an obsession of the human primate--its methodologies dating back to some of the earliest recorded messages of the past. The search for long (if not everlasting) life is implicit within Western mythology and within its scientific quests, as in:

Enthusiasms were tempered with Leonard Hayflick's discovery of the finite divisions of human cells, the so-called Hayflick Limit--that, at least at the cellular level, we are somehow programmed to die.  After all, if Darwin's mechanisms of natural selection are to work, old generations must be superceded by the new.  But there flickered hope in the cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks which, one-half century after whose host's death, live eternally on throughout the world.  Could the death gene(s) be turned off? Enter telomerase and its ability to lengthen the biological clock.  Listen to NPR's "Talk of the Nation's" "Merchants of Immortality" (aired June 4, 2003) featuring an interview with Stephen Hall, author of Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension.

The Buck Institute:"Advancing Age Research"

International Longevity Center--USA "An Institute for Research and Policy on Aging"

Pamela McCorduck's "The Long and Winding Road: What happens when Gens X and Y ponder a 100-year lifespan? (American Demographics May 2000)


Being a sociologist, I will leave it to the hypertexted links below to more fully develop the biological theories of aging (for layperson's overview, see U.S. News's "What causes aging? Wear and tear, or a molecular time bomb?"). Here, however, let's consider the ways in which biological processes can be affected by socio-cultural dynamics. Sample topics:

"Do you think you look older than your years, or younger than your years, or do you look about your age?"
Do you think you look ... than your years? MEN WOMEN
  60-69 70+ 60-69 70+
OLDER 3% 4% 6% 4%
YOUNGER 59% 70% 61% 67%
ABOUT MY AGE 37% 25% 30% 26%
DON'T KNOW 1% 1% 3% 3%

Source: Los Angeles Times 1999 national survey, Study #431, n=1590

Part of having a social purpose is having social responsibilities, and this has profound biological implications. Consider the findings below of Albert Bhak ("Social Integration Patterns and Senile Mortality," presented at the 1975 annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, San Francisco), who studied the monthly mortality rates for elderly men and women in three small South Korean villages. The data show the patterns of deaths of older persons, activity demands, climate, and food supply over one calendar year.

JAN 27 19 46 heavy heavy plentiful harshest
FEB 32 26 58 nil moderate adequate harsh
MAR 24 40 64 nil nil mild low
APR 29 46 75 slight nil lowest great!
MAY 29 32 61 moderate slight lowest mild
JUN 16 14 30 heavy prime dwindling unpleasant
JUL 21 18 39 prime prime adequate harsh
AUG 33 19 52 slight slight low harshest
SEP 18 14 32 heavy heavy dwindling mild
OCT 20 16 36 prime heavy adequate great!
NOV 31 27 58 slight slight plentiful unpleasant
DEC 48 20 68 nil heavy plentiful harsh

Do you observe any patterns? Bhak performed some statistical analyses and came up with the following correlations of older Korean mortality rates:


-.73 -.86
CLIMATE .39 .05
-.15 .20

What does this tell you? First, activity demands produce the strongest correlation with the number of older persons' deaths--specifically, the greater the monthly social responsibilities of older persons the lower their death rate (and, conversely, the fewer the role demands the higher the death rate of older persons). The harsher the climate the more likely old men (not women--guess who must be indoors) die. And although small, the sex difference in signs of the food supply-death correlations is interesting. Guess who gets fed first.

Click here to see

In Andrew Scharlach and Barry Robinson's "Curricular Module on the Aging Process" (Berkeley), see their sections on the physiology of aging and sensory changes

Ever wish to compare the world records of different age groups for the same athletic event? The place to find such information is the World Masters Athletics website

Elizabeth L. Rogers's "Why do we age?"


The Merck Manual of Geriatrics Comprehensive overview of the medical, social, psychological, and ethical issues in eldercare

Novartis Foundation for Gerontological Research

National Ageing Research Institute (Australia)

The Aging Research Centre Includes listings of scientists, laboratories and companies involved in aging research

from USC's Ageworks, Changes with Aging

GeroNet: Health and Aging Resources for Higher Education (UCLA)

Gerard F. Anderson & Peter S. Hussey, "Health and Population Aging: A Multinational Comparison"

Alliance for Aging Research--"the nation's leading non-profit organization dedicated to improving the health and independence of Americans as they age through public and private funding of medical research and geriatric education"

Susan Voge's "Ask NOAH About: Aging and Alzheimer's". For a first-hand journal detailing experiences with the disease, see Mary's Place.

Diseases involved in aging

Alzheimer's Association--from the national voluntary health organization in Chicago.  A rich resource is its Diversity Toolbox.

Alzheimer Web Home Page

The Life Extension Foundation

The Longevity Game!

Health and Retirement Study

Return to Social Gerontology Index