History of Research into Ageing/Senescence


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.



Baudisch A (2009) How ageing is shaped by Trade‐offs. Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, MPIDR working paper WP 2009‐43: 1–12.

Birren JE (1959) Handbook of Aging and the Individual; Psychological and Biological Aspects. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brandt H (2002) Wird auch silbern mein Haar: eine Geschichte des Alters in der Antike. München: Beck.

Byl S (1988) La gerontologie de Galien. History & Philosophy of the Life Sciences 10: 73–92.

Camporesi P (1995) Juice of Life: The Symbolic and Magic Significance of Blood. New York: Continuum. (ed. or. in Italian: Id. (1988) Il sugo della vita: simbolismo e magia del sangue. Milano: Mondadori.).

Charlesworth B (1970) Selection in populations with overlapping generations. I. The use of Malthusian parameters in population genetics. Theory of Population Biology 1: 352–370.

Chevreul ME (1875) Explication de nombreux phénomènes qui sont une conséquence de la vieillesse. Tableau de l'intelligence humaine considérée selon Mr. E. Chevreul d'après l'esprit progressif, l'esprit conservateur, l'esprit de routine et l'esprit de recul. Paris: Firmin Didot.

Comfort A (1979) The Biology of Senescence. New York: Elsevier.

Economos AC (1982) Rate of aging, rate of dying and the mechanism of mortality. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics 1: 3–27.

Finch CE (1991) New models for new perspectives in the biology of senescence. Neurobiology of Aging 12: 625–634.

Fortunati V and Franceschi C (2011) Zerbi, Cornaro e Bacone: una rivisitazione delle concettualizzazioni sulla vecchiaia/longevità nel rinascimento. In: Bergdolt K and Pfister M (eds) Dialoge zwischen Wissenschaft, Kunst und Literatur in der Renaissance, pp. 117–134. Wiesbaden, in Kommision: Harrassowitz Verlag.

Franceschi C, Bezrukov V, Blanche H et al. (2007) Genetics of healthy aging in Europe: the EU‐integrated project GEHA (genetics of healthy aging). Annals of New York Academy of Sciences 1100: 21–45.

Franceschi C, Bonafè M, Valensin S et al. (2000a) Inflamm‐aging. An evolutionary perspective on immunosenescence. Annals of New York Academy of Sciences 908: 244–254.

Franceschi C and Grignolio A (2010) Immunosenescence within an evolutionary perspective. In: Grignolio A (ed.) Immunology Today. Three Historical Perspectives under Three Theoretical Horizons pp. 79–99. Bologna: Bononia University Press.

Franceschi C, Valensin S, Bonafè M et al. (2000b) The network and the remodeling theories of aging: historical background and new perspectives. Experimental Gerontology 35: 879–896.

Gavrilov LA and Gavrilova NS (1991) The Biology of Life Span: A Quantitative Approach. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Gompertz B (1825) On the nature of the function expressive of the law of human mortality, and on a new mode of determining the value of life contingencies. Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society of London 115: 513–583.

Grmek MD (1958) On Ageing and Old Age; Basic Problems and Historic Aspects of Gerontology and Geriatrics. Den Haag: W. Junk.

Gruman GJ (2003) A History of Ideas about the Prolongation of Life. New York: Springer Pub. Co.

Haldane JBS (1942) New Paths in Genetics. New York: Herper & brothers.

Hamilton WD (1966) The moulding of senescence by natural selection. Journal of Theoretical Biology 12: 12–45.

Hayflick L and Moorhead PS (1961) The serial cultivation of human diploid cell strains. Experimental Cell Research 25: 585–621.

Howell TH (1987) Avicenna and his regimen of old age. Age and Ageing 16(1): 58–59.

Jaskelioff M, Muller FL, Paik JH et al. (2010) Telomerase reactivation reverses tissue degeneration in aged telomerase‐deficient mice. Nature 469(7328): 102.

Kirkwood TB (1977) Evolution of ageing. Nature 270: 301–304.

Kirkwood TB (1999) Time of Our Lives: The Science of Human Ageing. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Kondratowitz HJ von (1991) The medicalization of old age. Continuity and change in Germany from the late eighteenth to early twentieth century. In: Pelling M & S and Michael R (eds) Life, Death, and the Elderly: Historical Perspectives, pp. 134–164. London: Routledge.

Leroi AM, Bartke A, De Benedictis G et al. (2005) What evidence is there for the existence of individual genes with antagonistic pleiotropic effects? Mechanisms of Ageing and Development 126(3): 421–429.

Linnane AW, Marzuki S, Ozawa T et al. (1989) Mitochondrial DNA mutations as an important contributor to ageing and degenerative diseases. Lancet 1: 642–645.

Ljubuncic P and Reznick AZ (2009) The evolutionary theories of aging revisited – a mini‐review. Gerontology 55: 205–216.

McCay CM and Crowell MF (1934) Prolonging the life span. Scientific Monthly 39(5): 405–414.

Medawar PB (1946) Old age and natural death. Modern Quarterly 1: 30–56.

Medawar PB (1952) An Unsolved Problem of Biology. London: Published for the College by H.K. Lewis.

Medvedev ZA (1990) An attempt at a rational classification of theories of ageing. Biological Reviews 65: 375–398.

Metchnikoff E (1903) The Nature of Man; Studies in Optimistic Philosophy, translated by PC Mitchell. New York: Putnam's Sons.

Metchnikoff E (1907) The Prolongation of Life; Optimistic Studies, translated by PC Mitchell. London: Heinemann.

Minois G (1989) History of Old Age: From Antiquity to the Renaissance. Cambridge (UK): Polity. (ed. or. in French, Id. (1987) Histoire de la vieillesse en Occident: de l'Antiquite a la Renaissance. Paris: A. Fayard).

Niebyl PH (1971) Old age, fever, and the lamp metaphor. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences XXVI: 351–368.

Rose MR (1982) Antagonistic pleiotropy, dominance, and genetic variation. Heredity 48: 63–78.

Rose MR and Charlesworth B (1980) A test of evolutionary theories of senescence. Nature 287: 141–142.

Schäfer D (2002) ‘That senescence itself is an illness’: a transitional medical concept of age and ageing in the eighteenth century. Medical History 46: 525–548.

Vaupel JW, Carey JR, Christensen K et al. (1998) Biodemographic trajectories of longevity. Science 280: 855–860.

Weindruch R and Walford RL (1988) The Retardation of Aging and Disease by Dietary Restriction. Springfield, IL: Thomas.

Weismann A (1889) Essays upon Heredity and Kindred Biological Problems. In: Poulton EB, Schönland S and Shipley AE (eds). vol. 1, pp. 141–142. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wick G (2002) ‘Anti‐aging’ medicine: does it exist? A critical discussion of ‘anti‐aging health products’. Experimental Gerontology 37: 1137–1140.

Williams GC (1957) Pleiotropy, natural selection, and the evolution of senescence. Evolution 11: 398–411.

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.

Conn PM (2006) Handbook of Models for Human Aging. Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic Press.

Johnson ML, Bengtson VL, Coleman PG and Kirkwood TBL (2005) The Cambridge Handbook of Age and Ageing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Post SG and Binstock RH (2004) The Fountain of Youth: Cultural, Scientific, and Ethical Perspectives on a Biomedical Goal. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
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]