History of Research into Ageing/Senescence

Abstract

The fact that people age and die has always stimulated extensive philosophical and medical investigations in all societies. The early theories of ageing that arose in ancient Greece and revived in the Middle Age saw old age as a consequence of the gradual consumption of the innate heat with the inevitable loss of body moisture, according to Hippocrates’ system of four‐humours (fifth century BC). The idea that senescence was itself an illness, the image of the aged body as a lamp in which life‐fuel has run out, the character alterations of elders, the attempt to prolong life through specific diet or by substituting damaged body parts were the main themes around which research into ageing and senescence revolved from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century. The fresh tools provided by evolutionary theory and molecular biology have opened new vistas, sometimes retrieving old conceptions, of the intimate mechanisms underlying the recent prolongation of life expectancy.

Key Concepts:

  • Early speculations on ageing were focussed on the bodily humoural imbalance and on the gradual loss of inner heat.

  • Rejuvenating or stopping the ageing process was a major concerns of Medieval and Renaissance medicine.

  • Prolonging human lifespan through specific dietetic regimens was a long running theme in the history of gerontology.

  • Evolutionary approaches and molecular disciplines gave a new impetus to the researches into ageing.

  • No more considered itself a disease, senescence is nowadays sees as a successful form of remodelling and adaptation to a lifelong series stressors.

  • In the past decades, ageing researches have concentrated their efforts in four major directions: cellular theories, immune‐metabolic models, evolutionary explanations and molecular biology‐based approaches.

Keywords: Ageing; senescence; immortality; longevity; gerontology; geriatrics; history of medicine; theories of ageing; evolutionary theories

Figure 1.

Portrait of Alvise Cornaro (Luigi Corner, 1484–1566), oil on canvas (44.5×33.5 inch), by Tintoretto, 1565, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy. © public domain.

Figure 2.

The late‐life mortality deceleration (Gavrilov and Gavrilova, redrawn from original with permission of Elsevier 2001). The late‐life mortality deceleration law states that death rates stop to increase exponentially (straight line, according to Gompertz law) at advanced ages and level‐off to the late‐life mortality plateau. An immediate consequence from this observation is that there is no fixed upper limit to human longevity – there is no special fixed number, which separates possible and impossible values of lifespan. This conclusion challenges the common belief in existence of a fixed maximal human lifespan.

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Further Reading

Arking R (2006) The Biology of Aging: Observations and Principles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bengtson VL and Schaie KW (1999) Handbook of Theories of Aging. New York: Springer Pub. Co.

Binstock RH and George LK (2006) Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences. Amsterdam; Boston: Academic Press.

Cole TR, Ray RE and Kastenbaum R (2010) A Guide to Humanistic Studies in Aging: What Does It Mean to Grow Old? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Thane P (2005) The Long History of Old Age. London: Thames & Hudson.

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Grignolio, Andrea, and Franceschi, Claudio(Jun 2012) History of Research into Ageing/Senescence. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023955]