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geriatrics (jĕrēăˈtrĭks), the branch of medicine concerned with conditions and diseases of the aged. Many disabilities in old age are caused by or related to the deterioration of the circulatory system (see arteriosclerosis), e.g., mental deterioration and disturbances of motor and sensory function are often associated with an insufficient blood supply. Older persons are more prone to gastrointestinal disturbances, partly because of a reduced blood supply to the gastrointestinal tract and partly for other reasons, such as poor dentition. Changes in bone tissue, primarily osteoporosis in postmenopausal women, create susceptibility to fractures. There may also be diminished pulmonary function due to degenerative changes in the lungs. Elderly males may suffer from prostatic enlargement (see prostate gland), often accompanied by urinary obstruction. Obesity, causing increased strain on the heart and blood vessels, is also a serious problem of the aged.
The exact cause of aging is unknown, but genetic factors are known to influence longevity. Moreover, it is believed that highly reactive substances called free radicals can cause cumulative damage to body cells and tissues, and that aging cells are more susceptible to malignant changes. These factors have made geriatrics an important specialty, particularly since the proportion of elderly persons in the population is increasing steadily. Geriatrics is one of the fields included in the general study of old age, or gerontology, which covers psychological, economic, and social factors as well. Both public and private institutions are spending large sums of money for research in geriatrics and gerontology.
See R. Andres et al., ed., Principles of Geriatric Medicine (1985); W. Cunningham and J. Brookbank, Gerontology (1987); L. Hayflick, How and Why We Age (1994); J. Carter, The Virtues of Aging (1998).
gerontologythe study of AGEINGand of elderly people. It focuses on the societal consequences of a rising proportion of older people in the population, the personal experience of ageing, particularly in societies where youthfulness is prized, and also the social status of older people. Issues of current sociological debate are the degree to which the problems associated with old age are socially produced through ageist ideologies which deny status and resources to older people and result in enforced dependency through retirement and inadequate social services; historically and culturally, comparative studies of the social status of older age groups; the systems of social classification which overlie chronological ageing. An emerging issue is the frequent invisibility of age as a theoretical issue for sociology in the same way that gender was until recently. see also OLD AGE.
a division of medicobiological science that studies the phenomena of aging in living organisms, including man. The subdivisions of gerontology are geriatrics (the study of the diseases of the senescent organism), geriatric hygienics (the study of the hygiene of the elderly), and gerontological psychology.
The study of gerontology was developed with the essential changes in man’s life expectancy. In Europe, for example, the average life expectancy was 38.7 years in 1890 but approximately 70 years in 1970. In the USSR, the period 1917-70 showed an increase from 32 to 71 years in average life expectancy. This increase is primarily a reflection of the decreased incidence of death from infectious disease and the reduction of the rate of infant mortality.
A number of theories of aging have been advanced since the beginning of the 20th century. According to the theory of E. Metchnikoff (1908), aging is the result of intoxication of the organism by products of the metabolism of the bacteria that inhabit the intestinal tract, and by products, such as uric acid, of the nitrogenous metabolism of the organism itself. The Czech biologist V. Ruzicka suggested that gelation, or protoplasmic condensation, lies at the basis of aging. The Soviet scientists V. V. Alpatov and O. K. Nastiukova maintained that aging amounted to a reduction of enzyme activity.
Modern gerontology studies the mechanisms and causes of aging on all levels—from the molecular and cellular to the level of the organism as a whole. Special attention is given to the role of the processes of nervous regulation. These studies have led to the development of research in the field of geriatrics—the study of aspects of the development, course, treatment, and prevention of diseases in the elderly. The increasing use made by the elderly of medical institutions gave rise to new tasks for practical public health services, which has led to the creation within a number of clinical specialties of a geriatrics division. This has occurred most notably in the fields of therapy, psychiatry, surgery, and phthisiology.
The development of gerontology has taken three basic directions: experimental, clinical, and social. Gerontological research makes use of clinical, biological, biochemical, biophysical, and physiological methods. Scientific research in the social-hygiene aspects of gerontology is directed toward study of the causes of the connection between premature aging and social conditions or way of life, as well as toward finding the most effective organization of labor, diet, and motor activity among the elderly. More rational forms of social and medical care are also being investigated.
The development of gerontology in Russia began at the end of the 19th century and is associated with names such as E. Metchnikoff, S. P. Botkin, I. P. Pavlov, M. S. Mil’man, A. V, Nagornyi, N. D. Strazhesko, and Z. G. Frenkel’. The world’s first conference on the problem of old age and the prevention of premature aging was held in Kiev in 1938 at the initiative of A. A. Bogomolets. The Institute of Gerontology of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR was founded in 1958 to organize and coordinate all research in gerontology. Solutions to the problems of gerontology are being sought abroad by the Institute of Geriatrics in Bucharest, university medical clinics in Berlin and Leipzig, and the American Institute of Biological Sciences in the USA. In the Soviet Union, the All-Union Scientific Medical Society of Gerontologists and Geriatrists was organized in 1963, and in 1966 it joined the International Association of Gerontology. More than 20 journals in Europe, the USA, and the USSR, including the Soviet annual Gerontologiia i geriatriia, deal with the problems of gerontology.
REFERENCESDavydovskii, I. V. Gerontologiia. Moscow, 1966.
Osnovy gerontologii. Edited by D. F. Chebotarev, N. B. Man’kovskii, and V. V. Frol’kis. Moscow, 1969.
D. F. CHEBOTAREV