What defines our age

Get an idea of ​​aging

Age and the aging processes have moved into the focus of various scientific disciplines. But is it all about the same thing when biologists, psychologists and sociologists discuss these topics? The philosopher Christiane Mahr has now for the first time comprehensively examined what was previously implicitly assumed.

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Miss Dr. Mahr, now there is hardly a field of research that does not deal with age and aging. How did you cope with the abundance of material?

It was actually mountains of literature that had to be worked through in order to gain an overview. I had already narrowed my focus to publications from Germany and the USA. All in all, the material viewing took about a year and a half, a lot longer than I had planned.

What period of time do your sources come from?

It is essentially about publications from the past fifty years. During this time, aging research experienced a strong boom in many western industrial nations. In the beginning it was mainly the sociologists who dealt with the subject, then the psychologists and the biologists. In the 1990s, when demographic change began to take off, there was a research boom that continues to this day.

Why do you focus on the fields of biology, psychology and sociology in your study?

Because these are disciplines that stand for essential aspects of human life and experience. Biology examines aging as a physical-organic phenomenon, sociology understands it as a social fact and psychology, among other things, as a subjectively experienced. In addition, most of the research literature of our day comes from these areas.

Before you devote yourself to contemporary research, undertake a foray into the history of philosophy in your study. Why?

Long before the empirical sciences emerged, philosophers pondered age and aging. And what the ancient authors said about it shapes our thinking to this day. How one should behave in old age, i.e. what good aging is, has not only recently been discussed - Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca already dealt with this question. Even the differentiated view of age is not an achievement of modernity: Above all, Aristotle already distinguished between physical and mental age, but also between age-related and illness-related changes. His insights shaped philosophy up to modern times. Arthur Schopenhauer's ideas brought new momentum in the 19th century. For the first time he differentiated between two halves of life with four ages - childhood, youth, mature and old age - and assessed these phases differently according to their respective advantages and disadvantages. Schopenhauer's writings provide the background for many a current discussion about age-related gains and losses; His remarks about old age also set standards. According to a result of my investigation, the philosophical reflection on aging occupies a remarkable middle position: between individual scientific analysis on the one hand and everyday language use of the terms age and aging on the other.

What do these terms mean in everyday life?

The colloquial language is based on external characteristics such as gray hair or wrinkled skin and on an advanced chronological age.

How do the disciplines you examined differ from it?

Amazingly, I have hardly found any definitions or explications of age and aging in the specialist sciences. Obviously, one assumes the colloquial understanding of course and regards it as a sufficient basis for the time being. The disciplines examined by me are only dedicated to individual aspects, namely the biotic, psychological and social aspects of old age and aging. While biology looks at all living things, psychology and sociology only focus on humans. In sociology, chronological age, especially when you reach the age of 65, plays a greater role than in the other two disciplines. In addition to numerous differences, and this is a central result of my study, I have also found a common core of meaning.

A common denominator for the three disciplines?

Yes - one could also speak of a minimal meaning. Accordingly, aging is the last possible phase of life, which is characterized by the decline of certain skills that are usually fully developed in the maturity stage. This decrease is a continuous process with blurred boundaries at the beginning. This definition can be applied to all of the disciplines studied, and its scope includes all living things.

What do your results mean for interdisciplinary collaboration?

Years of practice have proven that interdisciplinary cooperation works properly even without an exact definition of the basic concepts of age and aging. A biologist researching mitochondrial aging need not necessarily be familiar with the age-related stigma theory of sociologists. Nevertheless, I believe that being open to other concepts of aging can be enriching for all specialist scientists.

Have you observed any influence of aging research on general perceptions of age?

At least there have been significant changes in language usage. So it was still common in the 1980s to speak of the old. Today this is perceived as impolite and prefers to speak of the elderly or the elderly. The findings of science have certainly contributed to a finer and more balanced handling of these topics.

The age phase is getting longer and longer. Many of those born with us today can already count on a lifetime of a hundred years and an end to this development is not in sight. Don't we need new concepts of age and aging?

In fact, the distinction made by US psychologists in the 1970s between young old people and old old people might soon no longer suffice. New results from biology also scratch our previous picture of aging: For example, the fertility of alpine swifts increases in the course of the aging process and the probability of death of the California gopher tortoises decreases over the course of chronological life. So, as previously suspected, we are not generally dealing with a continuous degradation process over the years. This could lead to a change in the biological conception of aging. That would certainly also have an impact on the concept of aging.

Has your research changed your attitude towards aging?

As far as I can judge for myself, my scientific work has led to me looking at the process of aging in a more differentiated and more attentive manner than before.

Interview: Lilo Berg

To person:

Dr. Christiane Mahr studied cultural studies and philosophy at the Fernuniversität Hagen. For her doctorate at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, she received a scholarship as part of the graduate college "Age (n) as cultural conception and practice". Her main focus is on applied ethics and the analysis of basic scientific terms.


Christiane Mahr: "Age" and "Aging". A conceptual clarification with a view to the current scientific debate, transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2016

Photo start page: After Lysippos - Eric Gaba (User: Sting), July 2005., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=295872