In many cultures and civilizations, old age is seen with respect and veneration: it represents experience, the valuable knowledge accumulated over the years, prudence and reflection. Modern urban society has transformed this condition, as activity and the fast pace of life marginalize those who do not accompany them.
Old age is the last period of the natural evolution of life. It implies a set of situations – biological and physiological, but also psychological, social, economic and political – that make up the daily lives of people who experience this phase.
The threshold of old age
Opinions differ according to socioeconomic class and cultural level, and even among scholars there is no consensus. For statistical and administrative purposes, the age at which old age is reached is usually fixed at 65 years in several countries, after which the person’s economically active phase ends with retirement. Currently, in most developed nations, this limit does not seem absolutely appropriate from a biological point of view, so the World Health Organization (WHO) has raised it to 75 years.
To understand this transformation, it is necessary to take into account the progressive increase in longevity – and, therefore, in life expectancy – that took place in the last decades of the 20th century, a fact unprecedented in history. The phenomenon is due to advances in the area of public health and medicine in general, and to the improvement of living conditions in its most varied aspects. For this reason, the number of people who exceed the age of sixty and seventy years is increasing, and more than that, they reach that age in good physical and mental conditions.
The increase in the percentage of elderly people, especially in developed countries, highlighted the problems related to old age, both from a strictly medical and socioeconomic point of view. The issue has thus gained new relevance among the concerns of governments, society and the scientific community.
The biological process of aging affects all living things. Cells, organs and organisms are subject to continuous wear and progressive degeneration that lead – after variable intervals – to irreversible changes in physiological functioning and death. The systems of homeostasis and self-regulation, which allow living beings to maintain a delicate balance with the environment, gradually begin to function inefficiently or insufficiently. Toxins accumulate in the body, the rate of repair of organic structures decreases and the individual’s ability to recover and vital functions decline.
Human aging is characterized organically and biologically by the following signs: appearance of wrinkles and progressive loss of elasticity and youthfulness of the skin; decreased muscle strength, agility and joint mobility; appearance of gray hair and, eventually, permanent hair loss (alopecia) among males; reduction of sensory acuity, particularly with regard to auditory and visual capacity; decline in the production of certain hormones, which affects the self-regenerating capacity of tissues and leads to the atrophy of gamete-forming activity (climacteric); disturbances in the respiratory, circulatory systems (arteriosclerosis, vascular and cardiac problems, etc.), urogenital, etc .; and memory change.
There is no evidence that advancing age determines the deterioration of intelligence, which appears to be associated with education and standard of living. Sexual activity, which tends to decrease with age, can actually be maintained indefinitely by physically healthy individuals.
Gerontology – a discipline that deals with the elderly from different points of view – has made great progress in the second half of the twentieth century, especially with regard to geriatrics, a branch of medicine that studies the diseases of old age and its treatment. All medical specialties referring to adults are of interest to geriatrics, but the more frequent occurrence of certain pathological conditions in the elderly has meant that they are viewed in a privileged way. So it is with cardiology and neurology, as heart disease and vascular problems, neurological disorders and rheumatisms are some of the main problems that afflict the elderly population.
Psychological, social and economic repercussions
Aging is a natural and inevitable process, but it can be experienced in better or worse conditions. Gerontology is able to prescribe preventive procedures with regard to the physical and mental health of the elderly. Diseases such as arteriosclerosis and obesity, a large number of digestive and vascular disorders, in addition to certain urogenital lesions, can be prevented or greatly mitigated with an adequate diet, moderate exercise and periodic medical follow-up.
However, the progressive physical degeneration and organic disorders that are still unavoidable in old age trigger great anxiety in most people. Superimposed on the real decline of biological functions, prejudices about aging abound, as well as fears and fears. Other factors can aggravate the situation, such as awareness of the approaching end of life; the suspension of professional activity due to retirement and the consequent feeling of uselessness; loneliness and alienation of people of other age groups, which are more and more frequent due to family breakdown in developed societies; and the precarious economic situation, due to the progressive reduction in income to which the retiree is exposed.
It is often the case that the elderly’s lack of motivation and their tendency to depression lead to loss of reflexes and deterioration of memory and intellectual capacity, even if there is no organic justification for doing so. Apathy can, however, reverberate organically, in the sense of accelerating aging or causing disturbances that would probably not occur if mental and emotional vitality were maintained.
The number of people over 65 years of age has grown rapidly in developed countries and tends to grow even more, as demographic and statistical studies reveal. The gradual aging of the population brings relevant economic and social consequences, such as the proportional reduction of the economically active population and the parallel increase in the economic burden of the nation, which should bear more pensions, social programs, health programs, etc.
Although old age is still considered an asset in certain fields of activity, especially in politics, the tendency is that people are forced to retire despite being potentially productive. This is because, in the progress of medicine in terms of health conservation, there has not been an expansion of the labor market, capable of absorbing the entire active population. The phenomenon is worldwide and developed countries are not free of it: the older, even healthy, are a significant part of the surplus labor.
The social importance of an age group is related to its effective influence on society. Life experience, as well as the knowledge acquired through it, the prerogative of the elderly, is valued above all in cultures of oral and non-traditional tradition. The decline in the prestige of the old man in industrial society is the counterpart of the value acquired by scientific knowledge itself, which disregards everyday experience and tradition in favor of other methods of determining the truth.
Research has shown that, as they get older, people prefer to stay where they live, while the young population in industrialized countries tends to be quite migratory. The elderly are forced to choose between moving to follow their family or staying in a known place, which is also subject, however, to rapid changes that alter their usual patterns of activity.
The specific values and education of each generation contribute to the difficulties of adapting the older segment of the population to the new social context, especially in large urban centers, where transformations are more accelerated. The social aspects of old age are, therefore, determined by the combination of different factors: the physiological effects of aging; the collective experiences and values of the older generation; and the organization of society, as found by this generation as they age.