Theories of Ageing

Sarah Ali, Dementia & Elderly Care, Unit 28 - P1 P2

Disengagement Theory

There are many theories of ageing, however the can be classified under two main subject which are psychological and biological. Psychological theories include disengagement theory and activity theory.


The disengagement theory was formed by Elaine Cumming and Warren Earl Henry in their book named Growing Old which was written and published in 1961. The theory was one of the first ageing theories formed by social scientist. The disengagement theory suggest that as individuals age they withdraw from society and their social roles due to realising their death may be in the near future. However the theory also states that this disengagement from society is mutual. This is because other members of society recognise that the elderly individual may soon pass and this withdrawal prepares them for their absence. This mutual understanding support the argument that elderly withdrawing from society is acceptable and normal.


Elaine and Warren formed 9 arguments to explain why elderly people who know they will soon pass to withdraw from society. First they argued that all member of society knows death is expected and over time our abilities deteriorate. For example our eye sight gets weaker and our muscles become weaker so we are slower. Due to this people may not be able to socialise as much which can lead to losing touch with their friends and other members of society. Another argument is that as people get older their ego will change, this means that their knowledge and skills may deteriorate as they get older. This can lead to the elderly going into retirement before they lose the knowledge and skills to do the job properly so that younger people who possess the skills can take over. People become ready for disengagement when they become aware that they have a short time left. This can lead to fewer interactions which will cause the person to lose touch with other members of society therefore they are disengaging and preparing for their death.

Activity Theory

The activity theory was formed by Robert J Havighurst in 1961 and was seen as a response to the disengagement theory proposed by Elaine and Warren. The theory states that elderly individuals are happier when they remain active and engage in social interactions. They should remain active members of society rather than becoming withdrawn and waiting for their death. It proposes that the busier an adult is they will be happier and healthier. It shows that their is a relationship between level of activity and life satisfactions, which has an influence on the individuals self-image.


However the activity theory does not look at the big picture. The activities the person partakes in should be engaging and fulfilling, they cannot do the same thing every day as it become monotonous. It also does not account for older adults as they may not be able to uphold a strenuous busy day, but would rather prefer a relaxed day with activities and hobbies they enjoy.

Biological Theories of Ageing

Disposable Soma Theory

The disposable soma theory was formed by Tom Kirkwood it is a biological theory that states their is a reason we grow old and eventually die. Tom proposed that our body needs energy to function, which we get from the food we eat. However as we age and get older our body uses less of this energy for repair and maintenance of our cells. This causes ageing as our cells will eventually die if not repaired within a certain time period, this would be a good argument as to why our eye sight or hearing deteriorate as we grow older. Ageing is a result of the natural degrading process of body resulting from lack of repair of our bodily cells.


The theory also suggest their is some correlation between reproduction and lifespan. This means that our cells will be repaired and maintained till we can now longer reproduce and therefore our bodies will go through age faster. Due our consumption of food our bodies as we become elderly will still be able to use this energy for repair and maintenance which is why we are able to live longer past not being able to no longer reproduce.

Genetically Programmed Theory

The genetically programmed theory states that our bodies are created or programmed in a way where we will all age and eventually die. It states that we have a predetermined life span which control a master clock in our bodies. This master clock control all our bodily cells and tissue, so when we die everything will stop working. The theory was later expanded by Bernard Stehler who proposed our cells will deteriorate over time, which means they may not be able to perform tasks they are meant to and senescence is a result of this. It also says that ageing is a result of developing, this mean things like late puberty or a low reproductive rate can cause a delay in the ageing process.The theory takes into account that ageing cannot just be caused by environmental factors or diseases the individual gets but it is natural process we will all go through until we die.