What Is Gerontology?

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on June 16, 2024
4 min read

The aging population around the world has particular needs. These requirements range from medical to social, and the elderly in particular need assistance that public policy can address. Public policy can help fund medical coverage for the aging population and support the discipline that monitors them: gerontology.

As the global population lives longer, our understanding of this precious population and their needs has improved.

Gerontology offers the chance to use a wide variety of multidisciplinary knowledge. This includes:

Gerontology is the study of the aging process and individuals across the course of their lives. It includes:

  • Investigations into changes in society that come from the aging process
  • Studying the mental, physical, and social changes of individuals as they age
  • Applying this knowledge to programs and policies

Gerontology encompasses multidisciplinary medicine and integrates several study areas. This specialty combines a staff working together that includes doctors, nurses, behavioral and social scientists, social workers, biologists, economists, psychologists, those who study the humanities and the arts, policy experts, and many other scholars and researchers. This is a broader expansion of the field of geriatrics. 

Gerontology is multidisciplinary because it is necessary to understand the changes in society as populations throughout the world thrive in increasingly old age. The scientific study of this process occurs in the population that has achieved middle age. Application of this information in practice and procedures is very important. 

Gerontologists study the mental, physical, and social changes in the aging population. They can work in education, research, or direct medical services. 

Because of the multidisciplinary approach to gerontology, professionals from numerous fields consider themselves gerontologists. They improve the quality of life and promote the well-being of these aging residents as they grow older. They do this through education, research, practice, and the application of interdisciplinary intellects to studying aging processes and aging populations. This is different than geriatricians, which specialize in the medical aspect of older adult care. 

Sometimes, geriatrics and gerontology are used interchangeably, but actually, there is a specific difference between the two of them. Gerontology is the study of aging, while the study of disease and illness in the elderly is geriatrics. 

Geriatrics is a specialty in medicine that focuses on older adult care. The older population has special needs and is more vulnerable to disease and illness because of the body’s natural aging process. Different changes occur in cells of the body, tissues, and organs that make the elderly more prone to certain chronic diseases. Examples include stroke, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Physicians who specialize in geriatrics, or geriatricians, are trained to diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases and conditions related to age. The care they provide is tailored to the special needs of elderly adults. It could be helping with issues like frailty and falls, it may be managing chronic disease, or it could include giving support to caregivers. The geriatric specialists also can provide hospice treatments and palliative care for those with terminal diseases. 

Gerontology encompasses all avenues of the aging process from the cellular level to the social level. It draws in knowledge from all fields of study. There are several subfields of gerontology that focus on all aspects of aging:

  • Biological Gerontology: Biogerontology is the study of aging at both the molecular and cellular levels. Those who research this field are trying to understand changes in cells and tissues as the population ages. They are trying to identify mechanisms that affect age-related illness. They work to develop interventions that can help to prevent, delay, or reverse the underlying aging processes.
  • Social Gerontology: Social gerontology is the social context study of aging. It concentrates on the relationship between the elderly and their caregivers, families, and extended society. Researchers in this subdiscipline try to understand how aging will affect social relationships and roles. They also work on developing policies and programs to improve the life quality for older adults.   
  • Environmental Gerontology: An environmental gerontologist studies the interaction of people with their social and physical environments. These researchers in this field try to identify environmental factors that aid in healthy aging. They work to develop interventions to improve the built environment also and make it more friendly to the aging. 

Through these specialties, gerontologists can address the most pressing issues affecting adults as they age. Some pressing issues affecting the geriatric population are:

  • Depression: Also associated with increased mortality 
  • Cognitive Decline: Alzheimer's disease and dementia
  • Nutrition: Changes in eating behavior with aging
  • Mobility: Walking speed and posture
  • Frailty/ Sarcopenia: Disability and functional decline
  • Immune Systems and Aging: Deterioration of the immune system with aging 
  • Cardiovascular Disease: Management of hypertension in older people
  • Systems in Geriatrics: Lack of top care for those of a geriatric age

Geriatric specialists and gerontologists have different avenues for their training and certifications. To be a geriatrician, a person has to complete medical school and perform a residency in geriatrics. There is, however, no particular path to working in gerontology. Those who identify as gerontologists come from numerous backgrounds, including sociology, biology, anthropology, psychology, and medicine. 

Once a person understands gerontology, they can make plans for their own life course and needs. Legislators and communities can invoke necessary public policies and choices to help. Public policy is especially important because of the incredible growth of the population over the age of 65. 

The U.S population is older today than it has ever been. according to the U.S. Census, people age 65 and older represented 16% of the population in the year 2019 but are predicted to grow to 21.6% of the population by 2040. This rate of growth is twice that of the population under the age of 50. Between 2012 and 2022, the elderly population of Alaska, Idaho, Colorado, and Nevada more than doubled.

Because of these facts, the need for professionals who specialize in gerontology will increase due to the demands of the population.