Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998


Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs (1998) 'Ageing and the Limiting Conditions of the Body'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 4, <>

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Received: 03/08/98      Accepted: 18/12/98      Published: 31/12/98


The twentieth century has seen a remarkable shift in thinking about old age. For increasing numbers of people reaching retirement there are numerous competing and contradictory messages about how age and ageing are viewed in contemporary society. The lack of any simple linear relationship between chronological age and physiological fitness and the evident variability with which physical ageing expresses itself challenges a determining biological foundation for old age. Structured dependency theory suggests that much of what we accept as 'ageing' arises from social practices rather than physiological ageing. More recently there has been a growing reaction to this position, particularly to some of its resource implications. Several writers have begun to seek once more to place a limit around ageing whilst claiming to restore a social meaning to the final stage of life. Others have challenged the emphasis upon a biomedical view of old age and sought a return to a greater acceptance of 'finitude'. At the very same time there is a renewed vigour in modernist claims to 'put ageing into reverse' as popular medical and self-help literature offer to make the promise of rejuvenation a reality. Biologists themselves have begun to question the determinacy of a genetically fixed lifespan. The appearance, disappearance and re-appearance of the body in gerontology parallel evolving post- War social policies toward health and disability. Debates around the limits of the ageing body illustrate the powerful links between gerontology, culture and contemporary social theory.

Ageing; Concepts; Limits; Social Policy

The Emergence of a Social Gerontology

Nowhere more so than in the study of old age has the adequate sociological theorisation of the body come to assume such a key position in shaping future approaches within the field of social gerontology. Whilst the term 'old' or 'elderly' appears a near universal social category, recognised throughout recorded history, the twentieth century has seen a radical rethinking of what being old means. The pension and retirement policies that emerged during the first decades of this century provided a new indicator of what it was to become an old person. Fertility decline and decreasing mortality rates saw more and more people reach the status of "retiree-pensioner" [1]. Parallel with the growth in the numbers of "pensioners", it became increasingly apparent that chronological age was but a poor guide to a person's physical and mental fitness. Geriatricians mounted an optimistic challenge to the irremediability of old age and its infirmities. Demographic change, state retirement policies and the emergence of gerontology and geriatrics as empirical disciplines studying old age produced a revolutionary shift in thinking about old age throughout most of the developed world rendering the physical determinacy of ageing problematical.

Viewed from a distance it had been relatively easy to draw a picture of the 'otherness' of old age. Von Kondratowitz's examination of 18th and 19th Century medical literature illustrates the fondness of writers of academic textbooks for a staged approach to old age. Typically such accounts described old age as the inversion or involution of the life process:

the old man soon appears to forfeit his animal privilege of moving freely on the earth Š he eventually becomes partially petrified and almost belongs more to inorganic than to organic life. (Constatt, 1839: p. 2)

Ageing was seen as the obliteration of difference - for example in accounts of the de-sexualisation of old age:

in this age the sexual function gradually ceases, sexual difference turns into indifferenceŠand ..the sexes come to resemble each other once again in respect of appearance and the condition of the whole body. (Grafe et al,1828: p.108)

As more people began to occupy this period of life, the nature of old age became a matter of growing uncertainty. No longer a medicalised abstraction, it was now a widely experienced part of life - and a part of life open to speculation, particularly how it was to be explained and how it was to be spent.

Whilst social policies around retirement and pensions had helped crystallise old age as:

a new distinct phase in the life cycles of most people a period of post-employment leisure preceding by many years the onset of marked physical decline. (Harper and Thane, 1991: p. 59)

they offered little guidance for the conduct of an aged life. During this period of the 'consolidation' of retirement policies, the discipline of gerontology emerged as an attempt to make clear what old people could and could not do. The state was and has remained the principal source of funding for these empirical studies of ageing. The results however provided little clarity. As research expanded many of the initial cross-sectional descriptions of 'normal' physiological and psychological ageing were challenged, on both methodological and empirical grounds. The very nature of normal ageing proved an extremely elusive concept (cf. Busse, 1969).

Faced with evidence of the variability and contradictory patterns of growth and decline in later life and the powerful contextualising influence of 'cohort effects' on performance[2], gerontologists began to question a simple model of ageing as decay or decrement. In contrast to the limited influence that 'objective' biomedical indices had on late life morbidity and mortality, subjective evaluations of health, satisfaction with life and material well-being seemed more powerful predictors of the kind and quantity of old age that older adults might experience (cf. Palmore, 1969, 1979; Lehr, 1982; Mossey and Shapiro, 1982; Kaplan and Camacho, 1983).

As old age became a reality for more and more people, its categorisation became more problematic - both as lived experience and as an object of academic enquiry. The old certainties of the early modern period - that old age was simply the physical inversion of growth characterised by a process of de-differentiation - were no longer sustainable, and the biologism of ageing was overshadowed by an increasingly socially focused gerontology. The social and economic dimensions of ageing dominated much of the public debate around ageing from the early 1970s.

Most recently a new public preoccupation with the physicality of ageing has emerged. The bodily signs of ageing seem to concern more and more people - and at increasingly younger ages. The lifestyle concerns of late modernity privilege appearance and social performance. Looking young, healthy and fit, mark out the signs of success.

A new focus on physical rather than social solutions to the problem of ageing is evident.

But whilst the physical foundations of ageing are re-emerging as central to contemporary discourse, they no longer represent the only, uncontested approach to age and ageing.

Contemporary Approaches to the Physicality of Ageing

Within contemporary gerontology it is possible to identify a number of distinct positions concerning the limiting conditions of physical ageing. Firstly, there is the social constructionist perspective that has come to be associated with structured dependency theory (Estes, 1979, 1984; Kohli et al, 1983; Phillipson, 1982; Townsend, 1981; Walker, 1980). Structured dependency privileges the contribution of social policy to the structuring of old age both as social category and as lived experience. It seeks to join old age with other social categories of indigence and lack - where the physical impact of age confers solidarity with others 'outed' by an unnatural society .

Secondly is the ever-present but rapidly evolving position of bio-medicine, that seeks to establish the bio-environmental origins of diversity in late life -searching for the key to 'successful' ageing in some favourable combination of heredity and a benign environment. Such a position contains two distinct themes. On the one hand, flirting with a biogenic magic bullet solution, there is the search for the underlying key to ageing that once identified, will confer riches on its discoverer and unimaginable if daunting consequences upon a bewildered humanity (cf. Finch, 1990; Rose, 1991). On the other hand, there is a desire for incremental progress toward pinning down all the details of a life that could be well lived, placing emphasis upon the gains to be achieved through preventive medicine, improved treatment of disease and the socialised surveillance of the body (cf. Fries, 1988).

Thirdly, there are the new moralists who claim for old age a privileged spiritual and philosophical status, that will help re- establish the moral anchor points of a society which is seen to be too preoccupied with the evanescent changes of the merely physical. These writers celebrate the morality that mortality confers, draw comfort from the limits that round out and round off a life, and seek to redistribute dignity and responsibility across the lifespan rather than mere material resources (Moody, 1986; Callahan, 1987; Longino and Murphy, 1995).

The aim of this paper is to explore how these three positions treat the problem of the physical and its determining role in shaping old age in contemporary society. Intrinsically these positions are linked to the emergence and codification of a 'sociology of the body' during the past decade. Drawing on the perceived absence of the corporeal in most of classical sociology writers such as Turner (1984; republished 1996) and Falk (1994) have provided a basis for a burgeoning academic field. While attempting to provide an integrated account of the physical and the social dimensions of the body the above authors have been followed by a growing number of writers who have accentuated the social construction of the body in their own work. This has been true of the work of Fox (1993), Lupton (1994) and Shildrick (1997) among others. Here the emphasis has been on the fabrication of the body through discourse and the minimising of any external referent even of the significance of pain. Responding to these positions Mike Bury argues that they are 'long on critique and programme and short on observation' (Bury, 1997: p. 189) and concludes that more empirically founded 'realist' accounts are needed if the sociology of the body is not to become irrelevant. To this debate about the social construction of the body can be added the increasing interest in biologically (if not genetically) foundationist accounts put forward by 'evolutionary' psychologists who see the human body and human behaviours as essentially adaptive from a reproductive point of view (See Higgs and Jones (forthcoming) for an overview). What all this adds up to is that the study of ageing and the ageing body sits astride a significant theoretical debate about the connections between social and biological nature; one which in this case has immense implications for all modern societies.

Modernist Reform and the Social Construction of Old Age

The central tenet of structured dependency theorists is that a significant portion of the misery and dependency that old people experience arises from their being removed from the labour market by compulsory retirement policies, deprived of a role in public life by state pension policies that reinforce their historically determined poverty and lack of consumer power, and set apart from the main stream of society by restricted access to social goods and services. It is these social practices that amplify the limitations of old age into the profound social disabilities that the retired exhibit in contemporary society.

While radical post-modernists treat any biological master narratives with considerable disdain (cf. Haraway, 1991; Lock, 1993; Featherstone, 1995; Gullette, 1997) more conventional social gerontologists have adopted a less extreme stance. Accepting the material reality of biological age, these writers nevertheless have stressed that the signs of physical frailty are over determined by social practices, including systematic social deprivation which support and in many cases induce a loss of economic and cultural value as people retire from work. These social gerontologists do not deny a physical base for ageing - the loss of physiological efficiency and the associated vulnerability to degenerative disease. They do however point out [1] that social factors increase the rate of loss and enhance individual biological vulnerability (for example suggesting that poor people 'age' more rapidly and acquire more impairments) [2] that these same social factors render such impairments more disabling, by making many of the cultural environmental and civic resources less accessible to poorer older people and [3] that this disadvantaged state to which many older people find themselves confined becomes seen not as a product of social disadvantage but as an intrinsic feature of ageing from which the individual cannot escape, further disempowering the person by their own attributions of lack.

In response, the advocates of structured dependency theory wish to identify and contest policies that selectively impoverish old people, to challenge the overt and covert stereotyping of old people and to advocate for older people a less disabling status within society at large. Such strategies incorporate both a politics of redistribution (e.g. seeking to restore universal earnings related pensions) as well as a politics of recognition (e.g. giving a collective voice to older people; arguing for user/consumer representation within the social and health service sectors). The bodily nature of ageing, while not denied, is viewed critically, particularly because of a fear that the resurgent biomedicalisation of ageing will distract resources from the more important agenda of removing the inequities that handicap older people (cf. Estes and Binney, 1989).

These attempts to view 'old age' and 'ageing' as socially constructed texts masking historical power differentials of gender, income and property are viewed as problematic not least because of their propensity to seek 'unlimited' resources to reverse these power differentials. Concerns with limits are increasingly financial, but they can be easily reframed in biological terms. Social gerontologists, it is said, face a dilemma when confronted by the physical evidence of ageing bodies and ageing minds. Either they are expected to acknowledge that no amount of money can 'undo' ageing, and accept limits on what is a reasonable level of spend to 'see out' the elderly with dignity or they are asked to acknowledge that the very limited returns from such redistributional strategies will severely restrict the possibilities of redistributing resources to other groups, such as children, young adults, the disabled and so on where the returns may be more rewarding to society as a whole. Gruenberg (1977) pointed out some time ago the dangers arising from 'the failures of success' - arguing that any marginal gains in increased longevity in later life will be more than offset by the increasing infirmity of the survivors. This viewpoint received considerable empirical support in US surveys indicating that the social and technological developments in medicine of the 1960s and 1970s were producing 'longer life but worsening health' (Verbrugge, 1984).

Limits through Social Consensus: The Reactionary Post-Modernist Perspective in Gerontology

In response to the anxieties of never ending spends to restore justice and remove the handicaps of old age, there appeared in the 1980's more radical agendas, some of which have been framed within a 'post- modernist' discourse. Writers such as Daniel Callahan, Harry Moody and Charles Longino have argued for the material and moral necessity of placing limits to what society "owes" those who are old. Although each has his own particular perspective, they share a common agenda towards a greater acceptance of age and decline; a reduction in the level of techno-economic investment in the last year(s) of life and the need to be more mindful of the limited return from such efforts. More positively they urge the need for society to normalise the fading of a life, accept the growth of disability and death and re-emphasise the dignity of dying. The distinction from, say, a narrow biomedical perspective is that postmodernists like Moody and Longino do not appeal to a biological master narrative but propose a deliberately chosen one, transcending any concern for what may be the ultimate physical limits to the human lifespan.

Such a perspective is most clearly articulated by Callahan (Callahan,1987; 1994; 1997) who recommends the deliberate placing of limits to healthcare for the very old; as well as in the work of euthanasiasts who support the view that individuals should be able to choose the time and manner of their dying (Humphry, 1991) At a more muted level there are those medical specialists, geriatricians included, who rail against the insensitive technocrats who suffer old people to cling to a life of deteriorating quality (cf. Jennett, 1988; 1995). These latter day stoics seek to replace 'high technology' investigation and treatment with concern and contemplation of the finitude of human life. What such writers tend to ignore is the very real evidence that 'high technology medicine' is in fact less likely to be delivered to older patients and that 'ageism' still permeates much contemporary medical practice in both Europe and the United States.[3]

In one of the more recent variations on this 'reactionary' postmodern theme, Longino and Murphy have argued that 'the chronic illnesses of older persons' place an 'unprecedented strain' on biomedicine since they suggest that 'most of the diseases that will eventually afflict Americans [sic] cannot be cured' and are leading toward a:

strategy [that] has become too expensive for the patient, employer and government to afford to continue to support and has cost medicine its special relationship with business. (Longino and Murphy , 1995: p. 91)

Whilst citing the work of the key referents of postmodernism (Foucault, Gadamer, Lyotard, etc.) beneath much of their discourse lies the argument that science has reached its limits, the rational project of progress is failing - and costing too much, which appears to mean the same thing - and that the time has come to abandon acute medicine for a gentler form of caring - which they suggest would be 'helpful', 'cost effective' and 'definitely less expensive than alternative biomedical interventions' (Longino and Murphy , 1995: p. 91).

Whilst Longino and Murphy seek to restore a caring rather than curing perspective because (a) it is cheaper and (b) curing won't work, Callahan argues that caring not curing is desirable precisely because curing might work. In one recent commentary he states:

it is not ageing alone that will bring the 'avalanche', but ageing plus expensive technological progress in keeping the elderly alive and in good health. The successes of medicine not its failures will give us fits in the future. (Callahan, 1997, p. 91)

As Moody has pointed out in his useful summary of the various interpretations of old age underpinning contemporary social policies , this latter position which rejects the 'biomedicalisation of old age':

assumes that the meaning of old age is to be found in the finitude of human life as a condition to be voluntarily accepted through collective action, not individual choice. (Moody, HR. 1995: p. 174)

Moody, after Habermas, calls this approach the 'Recovery of the Life-world', since he sees it as linked to traditional views concerning the natural stages of human life and the celebration of the endless cycle of birth, death and renewal. However, as Moody notes this does not simply involve a 'Luddite' rejection of modern technology and a desire to go back to earlier, simpler ways i.e. a return to tradition. Rather it requires a knowing and conscious decision to deliberately choose what can be deemed 'a natural life'. Describing this as 'in crucial respects a rejection of the Grand Narrative of Modernity' (p. 180) Moody explicitly identifies this strategy as one that confers limits through conscious collective action - a kind of late modern communicative rationality or de-radicalised post modernity.

Cole and Gadow's 1986 edited book first introduced the issue of 'meaning' into gerontological debate and it was here that Moody set out his own agenda to 'restore meaning' to old age. As Houtepen has pointed out, Moody at that times 'was still susceptible to the myth of the Golden Age' (Houtepen, 1995: p. 223). Although in his later essays he seems to offer impartial accounts of various interpretative approaches toward old age ('My purpose here has not been to argue in favour of one scenario or another' [Moody, 1995; p.182]) it is clear that Moody remains closer to the Habermassian position of seeking a collective agreement to accept limits and construct a tradition that can make sense of not just ageing but 'ageing and dying'.

Post [Ultra] Modernity and the Science Fictional Search for Anti-Ageing

At the other end of the spectrum is a radical or ultra modern strategy of eliminating all possible limits to what we might think of as the human lifespan. Included amongst these ultra-modernists, are those who question the limits altogether. Rather than rely upon a social deconstructionist account of biomedical narratives, these writers seek to use and radically redirect the biologism of gerontology towards an infinitely plastic ageing. At the hyper-real extremes are those who write of a science future where cyberminds are endlessly downloaded from outdated machines into new expectant motherboards; cryofresh freaks who seek to freeze time and reverse history; 'ironic' scientists seeking a powerful discourse penetrating past flesh and bones to re-order the very molecules of DNA; plastic techno-artists working endlessly on the infinitely editable medium of the body. Rather than viewing the ailments and handicaps of old age as socially constructed, the very embodiment of old age itself is viewed as a cultural artefact capable of being removed utterly from the shifting texts of economic and cultural power[4].

Sober versions of this strategy correspond loosely to what Moody (1995) has termed the 'prolongevity' model, which 'regards ageing itself as a disease rather than a biological limit to be accepted'. As he says 'it is a Nietzschean scenario, filled with the intoxication and the grandeur of Zarathrusta' (Moody, 1995: p. 179). Although evident in some of the writings of Featherstone and Hepworth (e.g. Featherstone and Hepworth, 1991; 1998) it is also a theme in the discourse of preventive medicine - as well as being central to a whole genre of self-help books and popular science articles that have been published recently with titles such as The Anti-Ageing Bible (Mindell, 1995), Rejuvenate Now (Kenton, 1996) and The Longevity Strategy (Restak and Mahoney, 1998).

The work of James Fries (Fries, 1980, 1988, 1997) represents a less extremist approach in this area, one complicated by Fries' emphasis on eliminating 'morbidity' without wishing to touch 'mortality'. Advocating a new 'preventive gerontology', he has recently written:

Data showing the cumulative amount of disability in the average human life may be very substantially reduced are now strong, perhaps even conclusive. (Fries, 1997: p. 1592)

To see this goal made actual in the lives of America's over 65's, Fries offers a set of relatively modest proposals:

exercise, smoking cessation, dietary change, weight control, vitamin E, low dose aspirin, estrogens, calcium, and other medical supplementsŠ improving air quality and reducing hazards in the immediate environment. (Fries, 1997: p. 1592)

In contrast others have been more forceful, arguing for a radical agenda to roll back the limits on ageing and mortality itself [5]. One of the most recent examples of this type of aspirational medicine is the book, Cheating Time (something of a minor classic of aspirational medicine) written by Roger Gosden who achieved fame in the early 1990s by transplanting the eggs of young women into the womb of post-menopausal women in an attempt to put the menopause into reverse.

Toward the end of his book, Gosden writes:

the next few decades will undoubtedly see even more dramatic progress in molecular genetics. I share Finch's conviction that we need not accept the inevitability of senile decline. There are magnificent examples of defiance of ageing by the human spirit but if mounting mind over matter was our only option I would be more pessimistic. Biology gives us hope of organic improvement and plenty of food for thought. Not all creatures are subject to senescence. Decay is not a necessary fact of life. (Gosden, 1996: p. 306)

Similar claims are made with even fewer token references to future developments in science. Books have been published which state flatly that we already have many if not all of the keys to live longer lives prevent ageing and rejuvenate ourselves. These incorporate a whole host of preventative and 'rejuvenatory strategies' - ranging from statements such as 'most of what we call ageing ... is premature and avoidable' to 'soon we'll all be living to 100'.

Such arguments contain two related themes. On the one hand they represent ageing as a phenomenon that lies in the hands of individuals, one which requires appropriate life style modification in order to succeed[6], and on the other hand they maintain a vested interest in maintaining the physicality of ageing - framing ageing as much as a change in physical appearance as a change in internal physiological homeostasis.

Popular anti-ageing books embody both these themes. Leslie Kenton tells us:

if we are to alleviate the enormous cost to society in economic and human terms for an ageing population riddled with degenerative diseases it is time we began making use of the latest findings about rejuvenation and putting them into practice in our own lives. (Kenton, 1996: p.22)

Equally these authors happily move from promising smoother skin, shining eyes, and muscles that are firm and strong to discussing the hidden dangers of free radicals. If not controlled, these molecules are described as ranging freely through the body where:

they can destroy cell membranes, disrupt DNA and wreak havoc with the body.

At the same time they penetrate our 'natural' defences from 'out there', originating from external sources linked inevitably to the modern 'polluted' world. So we are told:

air pollution for instance, being exposed to ultra violet light or radiation, pesticides in foods, drugs, cigarette smoke, exposure to some plastics and even polyunsaturated fats.. flying in jets..even exercise produces free radicals. (Kenton, 1996: p. 36)

Whether we follow Fries' recipe to rectangularise our lifespan, or Kenton's rejuvenatory lifestyle, the proof invariably is measured in how young we look how fit we act and how detoxified our inner world is. Looking out from our smooth skin and shining eyes, we are encouraged to take responsibility for the shape our cells are in and the orderliness of the strands of our DNA, increasing our fibre intake [but not too much], reducing cholesterol, increasing our intake of anti-oxidants, reducing our stress levels, and planning throughout life to pursue a self-help strategy to stay 'superyoung'[7].

Anti-Ageing as a Universalised Concern; Ageing Bodies and Contemporary Culture

It is ironic that much of the anti- ageing agenda is being conducted not in the depths of deep old age but within the medium of 'everyday life'. Whilst old age is fast being rolled back into 'deep old age' or 'the fourth age', the general issue of ageing casts a shadow across ever-larger sections of the adult lifespan. Becoming thirty is now viewed as a major life event - a threatening 'loss' event, moreover, that follows hot on the heels of receiving the 'key to the door'. Those in their twenties are learning to feel twinges of apprehension as this cusp emerges ever closer on their personal calendar. Emphasis upon experience is transformed; experience is now, the moment, not the accumulated understandings of personal histories. We face a position where old age is increasingly in retreat, an absence to be warded off by jogging, diet, skincreams, vitamins, fashionable clothes, holidays, personal pension plans and lifestyle magazines - while 'ageing' is the spectral presence attending every birthday past our twenty -first.

Life is lived increasingly in the ambiguous domain of public space - whether viewed on TV, read about in the papers, rehearsed in the gym, or promenaded in the streets and shopping malls. People's public appearance forms a social identity that dominates over that derived from the functions they perform within their more proximal world. Atomised consumers find their interests limited to their own skins. The surface features of the body increasingly define one's identity. Skin, muscle, bone and ligament serve to distinguish both public and private 'I' from the Other. Language describing these physical parameters (fashion, physique, gesture and 'attitude') dominates other discourses in the public discussion of the person. Virtue is removed from the conduct of a life and is rediscovered in the style of a life, while lifestyle is reflected in the impact made on the surface of the social.

As age becomes a concern to a wider public, and as the inefficiencies of old age become costlier and costlier in the public mind, the body becomes a matter of increasing concern. Here is the last stand. A fit and healthy looking body is proof one has not 'lost it' (lost the post-modern virtue of looking good). The body is text, and that text communicates the identity-value of its author. Authority is removed from the voice and is displaced onto the body. Images speak volumes. If wealth can be exercised, age can be exorcised. This is the meeting ground of post-modern aspirational science and the virtual realities of anti-ageing preparations, rejuvenation strategies, illness prevention lifestyles, and the mechanical reconstruction of the signifying coda of soma[8].

In short the re-embodiment of age has inserted itself as text throughout the consuming adult's lifespan. Although it has drawn from the modernist strategy of preventive medicine and aspirational science, much of the media treats these discourses more as metaphors than as models of determinate reality. The body is back, but without the boundaries it once had. Without those clear boundaries, there is growing uncertainty about limits, an uncertainty increasingly framed in terms of the limits that should be placed upon spending on old people. The ultra- modern aspirational science that seeks to prevent Alzheimer's (and thereby save billions of dollars/pounds) and the reactionary post-modernism that reaches for a communitarian agreement to limit what the old are owed each can be viewed as offering their own resolutions to the problem of the potential indeterminacy of age. Mastering or accepting nature is of course a recurrent theme in human culture. What is novel is that these debates are now being conducted in an arena (ageing) that is of direct and personal interest to more and more people, and that will become ever more central in the future relationship between state and citizen. If the state is seen as steadily withdrawing its role in defining old age, particularly by loosening the significance of the state pension to shape the lifestyle of retired people, and by disinvesting in long-term healthcare, the onus is shifted upon the individual to purchase a strategy to deal with old age (Higgs, 1995). The new consumerism offers the prospect of buying time, of spending one's retirement engaged in the sphere of physical culture and 'self-care'. In the space left behind the retracting state provision of health and welfare, private aspirational medicine and the personal financial markets each promise a way of ageing, or more accurately of living longer without becoming old.

Shorn of a defining social context for old age, we are left alone with our body, as the principle witness to our own personal success or failure in life. Contemplating the physical ageing of our bodies we are challenged to consider whether this represents our fate or our fault, and if it represents our fate will it be through our own choosing. A popular biological model of ageing is the 'disposable soma theory of ageing, which suggests that senescence results from limited investment in the maintenance of the soma' (Kirkwood and Ritter, 1997: p.10). Basically this view argues that in our evolutionary past we invested less in our physical survival than we did in ensuring our reproductive success. The implication of such a post-modern, or ironic[9] science of ageing must be to ask what limits should we be placing around the costs of re-investing in our now not so disposable 'soma'. This article has sought to outline the principle positions addressing those limits.


1In Britain, the National Insurance Act of 1946 ensured that 'for the first time, receipt of a pension forced an individual to relinquish the right to work' (Macnicol and Blaikie, 1989: p.37).

2the potential confounding of age and cohort effects were brought to light first in studies of mental decline in later life in the work of Paul Baltes and Warner Schaie (see, Baltes et al., 1979 and Schaie, 1965; Schaie and Strother, 1968); the influence of secular and cohort effects on biological indicators of ageing and the instability of biological markers of mortality across the adult lifespan have been reviewed in Fozard et al, 1990, esp. pp. P122 - 3.

3Evidence of the widespread under investigation and under-treatment of disease in later life has been reviewed by Gilleard et al., 1994

4See for example Featherstone and Hepworth (1998, esp. pp.161-172) on the possibilities of a 'post-bodies' technofuture.

5Several examples of this rhetoric are cited in John Medina's book, The Clock of Ages. He quotes Michael Rose saying: 'I believe in 25 years we could see the creation of the first products that can postpone human aging significantly. This would be only the beginning. ŠThe only practical limit to human lifespan is the limit of human technology' (Medina, 1996: p. 312). William Regelson is quoted as stating: 'as we learn to control the genes involved in aging, the possibilities of lengthening life appear practically unlimited' (p. 313).

6 Finch and Tanzi, writing in the journal Science conclude their review of the genetics of aging by arguing that 'the relatively minor heritability of human lifespan at advanced ages and the variable penetrance of genetic risk factors imply that choice of life-style profoundly influences the outcomes of aging' (Finch and Tanzi, 1997: p. 411).

7One of the most recent additions to this self-help literature is a book by that name - Superyoung - sub-titled the 'proven way to stay young forever' (Weeks and James, 1998)

8Numerous books have emerged in the last five years whose principal claim is to offer the reader a way to reverse ageing, to prevent ageing or to stay forever young. Examples mentioned already in this paper include Earl Mindell's Anti-Ageing Bible, Leslie Kenton's Rejuvenate Now, David Weeks' Superyoung, and Richard Restak's Longevity Strategy. There are many others - such as Judith Wills' Take 10 Years Off in 10 Weeks; Jean Carper's Stop Ageing Now and Marisa Peer's Forever Young.

9The term ironic science has been coined by John Horgan to describe the pursuit of science 'in a speculative post-empirical mode' (Horgan, 1997: p.7) which offers a scientific interpretation of how things might be, rather than an empirically verifiable theory of how things are.


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