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Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology 20: 8790, 2005.


C 2006 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.
DOI: 10.1007/s10823-005-9084-6

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Biological anthropology and aging


GILLIAN H. ICE
Department of Social Medicine, Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine,
309 Grosvenor Hall, Athens, OH 45701 USA

Abstract. As the number of persons aged 65 and older is increasing dramatically in both developed and developing nations of the world, the health and well-being of elders has become a
worldwide public health concern. Although older adults are now found in higher proportions
across all cultures, the biology, behavior, and environment vary tremendously across older
populations. Biomedical research largely follows a reductionist paradigm separating the domains of culture and biology. Even when health is examined in association with culture and
behavior, biomedical researchers largely focus on static unidirectional associations instead of
examining the dynamic multidirectional impact of culture, behavior, and the environment on
physiology and ultimately health. Since aging and the processes of senescence clearly involve
complex interactions among biological, environmental, and cultural domains, anthropologists
with a bio-cultural and evolutionary perspective are well-equipped to study variation in aging
and senescence. While relatively few biological anthropologists have focused their attention
on aging, a growing literature has demonstrated the utility of biocultural approaches to aging.
This paper serves as an introduction to a special issue that highlights the core of the biological
anthropology of aging.
Keywords: bio-cultural, demography, life expectancy, variation

As the number of persons aged 65 and older is increasing dramatically in


both developed and developing nations of the world, the health and well-being
of elders has become a worldwide public health concern. Although older adults
are now found in higher proportions across all cultures, the biology, behavior,
and environment vary tremendously across older populations. Since aging
and the processes of senescence clearly involve complex interactions among
biological, environmental, and cultural domains, anthropologists with a biocultural and evolutionary perspective are well equipped to study variation
in aging and senescence. Despite this advantage, relatively few biological
anthropologists have focused on aging (Ice, 2003).
Based on a review of papers published in the American Journal of Human
Biology and American Journal of Physical Anthropology, I have previously
reported that there is a clear focus among biological anthropologists on growth
and development as opposed to aging (Ice, 2003). This is likely due to the
greater impact of growth and development on evolutionary processes relative

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GILLIAN H. ICE

to the latter part of the life-cycle. As students of human variation, biological


anthropologists should find the study of aging of interest, given that variation
is greater among older populations compared to younger groups on almost
anything measuredsocio-cultural, psychological, economic, physiological,
and phenotypic. If the papers published in these journals are an indication of
the interest of aging by biological anthropologists, there does appear to be a
slow but steady increase in attention to aging.
Biological anthropologists have contributed to the study of aging in numerous areas, with an emphasis on chronic disease, bone biology, reproductive
biology, and body composition (Ice, 2003). Of course, the rapidly changing
demographics have led many researchers, anthropologists included, to examine aging more closely. Biological anthropologists have and will continue to
contribute to the understanding of the causes of the increase in life expectancy
over the course of hominid evolution. While estimated maximum lifespan has
doubled from approximately 53 years for Australopithicines to 122 years for
modern humans (Cutler, 1976; Hoffman, 1983), life expectancy has increased
approximately 500% from an estimated 15 year life expectancy of Australopithicines to the current high of 83 years in Andorra (Weiss, 1981, 1984, 1989).
The majority of the increase in life expectancy, however, came only within
the last two centuries (Weiss, 1984). In the United States, similar to other
developed countries, life expectancy has almost doubled in the last century
from 46 years in 1900 to 77 in 1997 (Anderson, 1999; Olshansky, Carnes, &
Cassel, 1990). Today, life expectancy varies tremendously across populations
from a low of 35 years in Botswana to a high of 83 years in Andorra (United
States Census Bureau, 1999). Whether we will continue to see an increase
in human life expectancy is of considerable debate (Barinaga, 1991; Fries,
1980). Furthermore, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa is likely to decrease
life expectancy in most African countries, further widening the life expectancy
gap between developing and developed countries (Raleigh, 1999).
The increase in life expectancy and historical fertility trends have led to a
great increase in the percentage of older adults in developed nations. Today,
one fifth of the developed world is over 60 years of age, and moderate level projections suggest that by 2030 one in every third person in developed countries
will be over 60 years old (Kinsella & Velkoff, 2001). In the United States, the
population increased 11 fold in the 20th century. While developing countries
have a lower life expectancy and the percentage of older adults is relatively
low, the number of individuals aged 60 and over is greater and growing faster
than in the developed world (Kinsella & Velkoff, 2001). In fact, 59% of the
worlds elderly population (65 years and over) live in developing countries
(Kinsella & Velkoff, 2001). Japans population over 65 has increased from
7% to 14% in 26 years, and other Asian countries are expected to see similar

BIOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY AND AGING

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increases in the near future. This is very rapid population change in comparison to European countries that saw similar increases over the course of
100+ years (Kinsella & Velkoff, 2001). These rapid demographic changes
represent a unique set of circumstances to which individuals, populations,
and nations must adapt. Anthropologists are ideally suited to study the impact
of changing demographics on human cultural and biological variation.
Biomedical research largely follows a reductionist paradigm separating
the domains of culture and biology. Even when health is examined in association with culture and behavior, biomedical researchers largely focus on static
unidirectional associations instead of examining the dynamic multidirectional
impact of culture, behavior, and the environment on physiology and ultimately
health. For example, there have been great efforts within the field of gerontology to describe normal aging, exemplified by the Baltimore Longitudinal
Study on Aging. Overall, gerontology has been limited by focusing primarily
on developed countries. This focus has been further limited by a primary focus
on majority populations within countries. The focus on normal aging gives
the impression that there is one way to age and anything deviant from the typical pattern of European-derived populations is pathological. Furthermore, it
has limited the research questions that have and can be made. We know very
little about the sociocultural, economic, ecological, evolutionary, and genetic
factors that contribute to variation in aging, and very few gerontologists have
examined the interplay of these factors. By setting aging within a cultural
and environmental context, biological anthropologists are in a unique position to add to the complexity of models and ultimately advance the field of
gerontology and geriatric medicine.
The papers in this issue represent the core of the biological anthropology of
aging in that they all examine bio-cultural influences on human variation. They
all intersect the traditional approaches within cultural anthropology with those
employed by biomedical researchers. As such, they demonstrate the potential
of a bio-cultural approach in the study of aging.
References
Anderson, R.N. (1999). United States Life Tables, 1997 (Vol. 47). Hyattsville, Maryland:
National Center for Health Statistics.
Barinaga, G.T. (1991). How long is the human life span? Science 254: 936938.
Cutler, M.G. (1976). Evolution of longevity in primates. Journal of Human Evolution 51:
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Fries, J.F. (1980). Aging, natural death, and the compression of morbidity. New England
Journal of Medicine 303: 130135.
Hoffman, M. A. (1983). On the presumed coeveolution of brain size and longevity in hominids.
Journal of Human Evolution 13: 371376.

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Ice, G. H. (2003). Biological anthropology of aging: Past, present and future. Collegium
Antropologicum 27: 16.
Kinsella, K. & Velkoff, V.A. (2001). An Aging World: 2001 (No. U.S. Census Bureau, Series
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Address for correspondence: Gillian H. Ice, Department of Social Medicine, Ohio


University College of Osteopathic Medicine, 309 Grosvenor Hall, Athens, OH 45701
USA. Phone: (740) 593-2128; FAX: (740) 593-1730; e-mail:iceg@ohio.edu