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Old age

Old Woman Dozing by Nicolaes Maes (1656). Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels
Old Woman Dozing by Nicolaes Maes (1656). Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels

Old age consists of ages nearing or surpassing the average life span of human beings, and thus the end of the human life cycle. Euphemisms and terms for old people include seniors (American usage), senior citizens (British and American usage) and the elderly.

Old people have limited regenerative abilities and are more prone to disease, syndromes, and sickness than younger adults. For the biology of ageing, see senescence. The medical study of the aging process is gerontology, and the study of diseases that afflict the elderly is geriatrics.



Elders from Turkey, 2010
Elders from Turkey, 2010
The boundary between middle age and old age cannot be defined exactly because it does not have the same meaning in all societies. People can be considered old because of certain changes in their activities or social roles. Examples: people may be considered old when they become grandparents, or when they begin to do less or different work retirement.

German chancellor Otto von Bismarck created the world's first comprehensive government social safety net in the 1880s, providing for old age pensions and setting 60 as the age of retirement. The fixed retirement age of 70 was the first attempt at defining the start of old age. In the United States of America, and the United Kingdom, the age of 65 was traditionally considered the beginning of the senior years because, until recently, United States and British people became eligible to retire at this age with full Social Security benefits. In 2003, the age at which a US citizen became eligible for full Social Security benefits began to increase gradually, and will continue to do so until it reaches 67 in 2027. Full retirement age for Social Security benefits for people retiring in 2012 is age 66.[1] The original raison d'etre behind old age pensions was to prevent poverty and elderly persons from being reduced to beggary, which is still common in some underdeveloped countries, but growing life expectancies and elder populations has brought into question the model under which pension systems were originally designed.

Physical changes

A grey-haired old woman from the United Kingdom There is often a general physical decline, and people become less active. Old age can cause, amongst other things:

  • Wrinkles and liver spots on the skin due to loss of subcutaneous fat
  • Change of hair colour to gray or white
  • Hair loss
  • Reduced circulatory system function and blood flow
  • Reduced lung capacity
  • Reduced immune system function
  • Changes in the vocal cords that produce the typical "old person" voice
  • Lessened hearing
  • Diminished eyesight
  • Reduced mental/cognitive ability.
  • Depressed mood
  • Lessening or cessation of sex, sometimes because of physical symptoms such as erectile dysfunction in men, but often simply a decline in libido
  • Greater susceptibility to bone and joint diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoperosis

It must be stressed that each individual is different, and health issues that affect one elderly person may not affect another.

Demographic changes

Population aged at least 65 years in 2005
Population aged at least 65 years in 2005
In the industrialized countries, life expectancy has increased consistently over the last decades.[2] In the United States the proportion of people aged 65 or older increased from 4% in 1900 to about 12% in 2000.[3] In 1900, only about of the nation's citizens were 65 or older (out of 76 million total American citizens). By 2000, the number of senior citizens had increased to about 35 million (of 280 million US citizens). Population experts estimate that more than Americans about 17 percent of the population will be 65 or older in 2020. The number of old people is growing around the world chiefly because of the post World War II baby boom, and increases in the provision and standards of health care.

The growing number of people living to their 80s and 90s in the developed world has strained public welfare systems and also resulted in increased incidence of diseases like cancer and dementia that were rarely seen in premodern times. When the United States Social Security program was created, persons older than 65 numbered only around 5% of the population and the average life expectancy of a 65 year old in 1936 was approximately 5 years, while in 2011 it could often range from 10-20 years.

Psychosocial aspects

Somali]] woman. According to Erik Erikson s "Eight Stages of Life" theory, the human personality is developed in a series of eight stages that take place from the time of birth and continue on throughout an individual s complete life. He characterises old age as a period of "Integrity vs. Despair", during which a person focuses on reflecting back on their life. Those who are unsuccessful during this phase will feel that their life has been wasted and will experience many regrets. The individual will be left with feelings of bitterness and despair. Those who feel proud of their accomplishments will feel a sense of integrity. Successfully completing this phase means looking back with few regrets and a general feeling of satisfaction. These individuals will attain wisdom, even when confronting death.[4][5][6]

Life expectancy

In most parts of the world, women live, on average, longer than men; even so, the disparities vary between 9 years or more in countries such as Sweden and the United States to no difference or higher life expectancy for men in countries such as Zimbabwe and Uganda.[7]

The number of elderly persons worldwide began to surge in the second half of the 20th century. Up to that time (and still true in underdeveloped countries), five or less percent of the population was over 65. Few lived longer than their 70s and people who attained advanced age (ie. their 80s) were rare enough to be a novelty and were revered as wise sages. Accidents and disease claimed many people before they could attain old age, and because health problems in those over 65 meant a quick death in most cases. If a person lived to an advanced age, it was due to genetic factors and/or a relatively easy lifestyle, since diseases of old age could not be treated before the 20th century.

Individuals who became famous in their old age

First World War]].

A smiling old man from Chile
A smiling old man from Chile

  • Ethel Percy Andrus, retired school principal who founded AARP at 74 in 1958
  • Harry Bernstein, author who published his first book, The Invisible Wall, at 96 in 2007
  • Jeanne Calment, longest confirmed lifespan and the oldest person of France
  • Ann Nixon Cooper, who at age 106 made national news during the 2008 US presidential election for voting for Barack Obama. She was mentioned in Obama's victory speech.
  • David Cohen (politician), first Democratic elected official to represent 1,000,000 or more people at age 90
  • Luigi Cornaro and his classic The Art of Living Long[8] or Discourses on the Sober Life.[9]
  • Granny D, political activist who ran for public office at the age of 94
  • James Fisher, blacksmith who returned from retirement to become the first person over the age of 100 to achieve the ACA qualification.
  • Enrico Dandolo, who led the infamous Fourth Crusade in his 80s
  • Sadie and Bessie Delany, civil rights activists
  • Ruth Ellis, 101-year-old African-American LGBT activist
  • Florence Holway, rape survivor and activist
  • Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, Irish-American labor organizer
  • Alice Herz-Sommer, the world's oldest Holocaust survivor at age 106
  • Maggie Kuhn, activist and founder of the Gray Panthers
  • Mae Laborde, actress who began acting in her 90s
  • Bernando LaPallo, American doctor who wrote his first book at age 107 and is the world's oldest blogger at age 109
  • Buster Martin, said to be the oldest worker in the UK at age 103
  • Grandma Moses, American folk artist
  • Narses, who became a successful general at 74
  • Peter Oakley, aka geriatric1927, British senior famous for his YouTube videos
  • Nola Ochs, became the oldest college graduate ever at age 98
  • Clara Peller, Wendy's spokeswoman, famous for her "Where's the Beef?" catch-phrase
  • Emily Perry, actress who played the role of Madge Allsop
  • Mary Jane Rathbun, nurse and activist who was arrested for serving marijuana brownies to AIDS patients
  • Malvina Reynolds, folk singer and political activist
  • Olive Riley, blogger who started blogging at 107
  • Eunice Sanborn, world's oldest living person from , 2010 until , 2011
  • Arthur Winston, who at age 100 retired from his job working for the Los Angeles Metro after 72 years missing only one day, that being for his wife's funeral in 1988.

See also

  • Aging in dogs
  • Aging in place
  • Centenarian
  • Elderly care
  • Geriatric care management
  • List of the verified oldest men
  • List of the verified oldest women
  • Oldest people
  • Pensioner
  • Respect for the Aged Day
  • Silver Alert
  • Supercentenarian


External links

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