Theories of Ageing

By Laura Behroozi

There are two major ageing theories which explain the sociological and psycho social aspects of ageing within elderly individuals. These two theories are the Disengagement and the Activity theory.

Disengagement Theory

The disengagement theory was developed by two social scientists named Elaine Cumming and William Henry in 1961.

According to this theory, elderly individuals gradually start to become disengaged and withdrawn from activities, events and other social roles they once enjoyed participating in with. The reasons behind them becoming disengaged is because they come to terms with the realisation that they are not going to live for very much longer and also the fact that society tends to isolate the elderly. Cumming and Henry also believed that another main reason behind the elderly becoming withdrawn from social interactions was due to ill-health such as poor mobility or hearing/vision impairments, retirement (meaning they will no longer have everyday contact with their colleagues) as well as travel and technology as some elderly people do not have access to a car, the internet and a phone resulting in less social contact.

It has been said that this disengagement from society has been enforced upon them rather than it being voluntary. Henry argued that it was normal and healthy for elderly individuals to withdraw from society as it was just a natural art of the ageing process.

However, it is also important to remember that this theory was developed in the 1960's and a lot has changed since then. Back in the 1960's work and social roles were more physical and the health system was not as strong as it is now. This means that as people grew older, they became more isolated from society as they no longer had the energy and stamina to participate. Nowadays, although it is still fairly common for elderly individuals to become socially withdrawn from activities, there are lot's more opportunities available for elderly individuals to access easily. For example, being able to work past retirement age, getting involved in support groups and groups that meet regularly to participate in particular hobbies, as well as becoming more involved with other alternate activities such as spending quality time with their families.

Activity Theory

The activity theory was developed by Robert Havighurst in 1961 and it was developed as a response to the Disengagement theory also made in 1961.

This theory suggests that the more activities and social interactions the elderly are involved in, the happier and healthier they will be and the risk of them becoming disengaged from society will decrease.

However, this theory also states that if an elderly individual was to participate in social activities they had no interest in, it could lead to negative consequences on their general health and well being. On the other hand, if an individual has enjoyed participating in a particular activity from a young age, such as golf, then this will enable them to be healthy and happy in the last stage of their life.

Being involved with physical and intellectual activities will result in successful ageing according to this theory as it will enable the elderly individual to have a positive self-concept and remain fit and healthy, meaning they will have a lowered risk of developing health related problems and have an increased life expectancy.

This theory also states the importance of society and ageism. Society must not isolate the elderly but instead treat them the same as they would those who are middle aged. They should also encourage the elderly to join in with activities and support them to do this.

However, this theory does not consider health related limitations such as arthritis, lack of income or lack of motivation an elderly person may experience resulting in them not being able to participate in activities. Also, if the elderly are capable of carrying out activities they used to in their younger years, it could also have negative consequences. For example, they may have enjoyed driving in their car at night which could be risky for them when they are elderly if they have visual impairments or slower reactions.

Continuity Theory

The continuity theory was developed by Robert Atchley in 1989. It suggests that it is very important for elderly individuals to continue to maintain the same behaviors, activities they enjoy, hobbies and interests, as well as social contacts they have had throughout their life. According to this theory, individuals who are happy and healthy when they are middle aged need to continue living the lifestyle they are through to their last life stage in order to maintain that happiness and healthiness.

This theory is similar to the activity theory as they both imply that the more activities you participate in as you grow older, the happier and healthier you will be.

The continuity theory also suggests that all elderly individuals have different needs when it comes to participating in activities. For example, some of the elderly population will choose to withdraw themselves from social interactions/activities as they believe they have the right to retire and develop a disengaged lifestyle. On the other hand, some elderly individuals who have had an active lifestyle by participating in hobbies and sending quality time with their family and friends regularly may choose to maintain this lifestyle as they may believe it will make them remain happy.

This theory acknowledges changes such as lack in mobility, therefore, are limited to what activities they can participate in which they were able to when they were middle aged. However, this theory forces the concept of change into continuity by making the elderly adapt their lifestyle and take up new activities.

There are also ageing theories which explain the biological aspects of ageing within elderly individuals. The two theories which I will be explaining are the Genetically Programmed Theory and the Disposable Soma Theory.

Genetically Programmed Theory

This theory states that the ageing process is an essential part of the biology of people. It also states that ageing has been programmed into the systems within our bodies. According to this theory, there are three main systems within our bodies which are connected to the process of ageing, and these consist of the endocrine system, our immune system and our genes. Over time, these systems will start to change and these changes are what causes the signs and symptoms of the ageing process.

The process of ageing and death are not due to exposure and wear and tear throughout life, instead, it has been programmed into our bodies and is a natural and necessary process.

This theory suggests that cells within our bodies have been programmed to divide up to a certain amount of times within our life. After they have divided as many times as they have been programmed to, they are no longer able to do so resulting in functional changes which occur in our cells which causes them to age and eventually die out, which as a result of this, causes our organs to also age.

Disposable Soma Theory

The Disposable Soma Theory of ageing (Soma is Greek for body) was developed by Thomas Kirkwood in 1977. According to this theory, the cause of ageing is down to the increasing amount of fewer resources which are able to repair wearing and damaged tissues within our bodies. Therefore, our bodies need to budget the amount of energy which is available.

However, it has not been proven that the maintenance and repair of damaged tissue requires a lot of energy and resources. Also, this theory does not provide an explanation as to why energy and resources available within a humans early years would decrease the availability of energy as the individual aged resulting in tissues not being able to be repaired.

The Disposable soma theory says that women are less 'disposable' than men, meaning they are less likely to pick up bad habits such as smoking, drinking and eating unhealthily as opposed to men. As a result of this, women tend to live longer than men do. Also, laboratory studies have proven that cells within the bodies of female rodents repair much better than those in male rodents.