Aging Through Time

By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian

“Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now”
– Bob Dylan, My Back Pages

May celebrates Older Americans Month, which this year focuses on promoting health and community engagement of seniors across the nation. Today, 14.1% of the U.S. population is aged 65 and older1 and by 2030, 20% of the population will be over 65.2 We are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives than ever before.

Over the years there has been investigation into aging and the life course, reflecting beliefs informed by the average lifespans of the time. The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life by William Kitchiner, published in 1821 in the U.K. and two years later in the U.S., suggested that life is divided into three stages, each stage requiring a different regimen of “food – clothes – fire – air – exercise – sleep – wine – &c.”3 Kitchiner cautions that people only realize the importance of these elements after they become enslaved to other, detrimental, habits. They may need to proceed gradually with his recommendations in order to correct the bad habits and form new ones.

The first stage of life is a period of preparation, from birth to 21. In this stage, people should take in as much healthful food as can be digested for the body to convert into Chyle (bodily fluids). The second stage, the period of active usefulness (ages 21-42), should include plenty of “hard exercise in the open air” to restore the body’s constitution. In the third stage, the period of decline, the rate of decline is based on the strength of the constitution built during the active stage of life. Without “due attention to Diet &c., the Third period of Life is little better than a Chronic Disease.”4

Pages 34-35 of Kitchiner, The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life, 1823 edition.

Pages 34-35 of Kitchiner, The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life, 1823 edition. Click to enlarge.

According to Kitchiner, by 42 years of age humans are on the decline; they are ancient by 63. Put in context, life expectancy in the 1900s for men was 46.3 in the U.S.and 44 in the UK.5,6 But still, Kitchiner believed it was never too late to make up for lost time.

Kitchiner incorporated William Jones’s andrometer,7 a chart intended as a tool for people to gauge their progress through life.8

William Jones' Andrometer, on pages 36-37 of Kitchiner, The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life, 1823 edition.

William Jones’ Andrometer, on pages 36-37 of Kitchiner, The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life, 1823 edition. Click to enlarge.

Unfortunately, Jones passed away in his late 40s and Kitchiner in his 50s. Sadly, neither got to experience “a glorious retirement” or the “universal respect” due after the age of 60.

More than 100 years later, in 1974, a new benchmark showed similarities to Kitchiner’s book while offering a 20th-century outlook. D. D. Stonecypher published Getting Older and Staying Young: A Doctor’s Prescription for Continuing Vitality in Later Life to give readers reliable and practical advice about aging, because “the quality of one’s later years grows out of the choices the individual makes.”9 In 1974 life expectancy in the United States was 68.2 for men and 75.9 for women.10

Stonecypher had specific audiences in mind for his work: middle-aged readers wondering about their aging bodies who may be modifying activities in order to preserve their vigor; older readers looking to gain insights into preserving mental and physical vitality; and younger readers who wished to assist the elderly and gain insight and perspective on their own aging process. He also notes another type of reader, the policy maker or community worker who “holds the key to the mounting social problems of aging.”

Stonecypher offered the following questionnaire as a way for readers to assess the probability of living a long life, but goes on to explain that medical science was advancing so rapidly it could be possible to double the life span to over 100 years. Citing that in classical Greece and Rome average life expectancy was 18 years, he writes that by the 1800s it had doubled to 35 years and between 1800 and 1970 it doubled again to 72 years.

In Stonecypher, Getting Older and Staying Young, 1974.

In Stonecypher, Getting Older and Staying Young, 1974.

In 2013, life expectancy in the United States was 76.4 for men and 81.2 for women,11 a substantial increase even from 1974. The longer one lives the more productive one may need to be: “a glorious retirement” may not be the answer to a healthy old age. Stonecypher tries to persuade his audience: “It is prejudice that has justified the compulsory retirement, inadequate pensions, the ostracism, and the other stresses which have come to seem a normal part of life after 65.”

This year, the Medicare, Medicaid and the Older American Act celebrates its 50th anniversary.12 The Act led to programs that have ensured access to health care, community services, and protections of the rights of elders. We have come a long way, but have even more work to do to support health and productivity of seniors as the population ages.

References

1. U.S. Census Bureau. State and County QuickFacts. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html. Accessed May 21, 2015.

2. U.S. Census Bureau. An Aging Nation: the Older Population in the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau; 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr62/nvsr62_07.pdf. Accessed May 21, 2015.

3. Kitchiner William. The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life. Philadelphia : H. C. Carey & I. Lea; 1823.

4. Ibid.

5. U.S. Census Bureau. United States Life Tables, 2009.. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau; 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr62/nvsr62_07.pdf. Accessed May 21, 2015.

6. England. Office for National Statistics. Mortality in England and Wales: Average Life Span, 2010. England: Office for National Statsitcs; 2012. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_292196.pdf. Accessed May 22, 2015.

7. Mental Floss. The Andrometer: an 18th-Century Measuring Stick for Success in Life. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58057/andrometer-18th-century-measuring-stick-success-life. Accessed May 21, 2015.

8. Jones, William. The works of Sir William Jones, Volumes 1-2, 1807. http://books.google.com/books?id=PW5KAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed May 21, 2015.

9. Stonecypher D. D. Getting Older and Staying Young. [1st ed.]. New York : Norton; 1973.

10. U.S. Census Bureau. United States Life Tables, 2009.. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau; 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr62/nvsr62_07.pdf. Accessed May 21, 2015.

11. U.S. Census Bureau. Health, United States, 2014. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau; 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus14.pdf. Accessed May 21, 2015.

12. 2015 White House Conference on Aging. http://www.whitehouseconferenceonaging.gov/about/index.html. Accessed May 21, 2015.

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