What Is Geriatrics? - Definition, History & Research

Instructor: Robin Harley

Robin has a PhD in health psychology. She has taught undergraduate and graduate psychology, health science, and health education.

Geriatrics is a branch of medicine dedicated to providing medical care for adults aged 65 and older. This lesson will discuss the significance of this discipline, its history, and current research on age-related health issues.

What Is Geriatrics?

As David Bowie suggests in his famous song 'Changes,' time does not discriminate. Whether we are celebrities, athletes, or teachers, we all get older. In fact, as the Baby Boomer generation grows older and healthcare improves, the number of older people is increasing faster than ever. According to the Administration on Aging (AoA), nearly 13% of the American population was aged 65 or older as of 2009. Further, the AoA predicts that this number will increase to 19% by the year 2030.

With aging comes a special set of life circumstances. Our bodies change and we become more susceptible to health problems. The American Geriatric Society's Health in Aging Foundation estimates that over half of older adults have at least three medical problems, including heart disease, arthritis, dementia, and diabetes. Therefore, older people require special consideration when receiving medical care. Geriatrics is a branch of medicine that focuses on providing medical care for adults aged 65 and older. Let's discuss the history of this discipline and the research that is being conducted to improve the quality of life for older adults.

History of Geriatrics

The importance of special medical care for the elderly has been understood throughout history. For example, elder care was recognized in the practice of Ayurveda, the ancient system of traditional Hindu medicine. In the early 11th century, Persian philosopher and writer Avicenna wrote The Canon of Medicine, the first medical text to provide instruction on caring for elders. In this book, he included special exercises, sleep issues, and diet.

In the mid-1800s, Welsh physician George Day's Diseases of Advanced Life was published, which addressed the medical needs of the aged. In the 1880s, the first geriatric hospital was established in Belgrade, Serbia. It wasn't until the early 1900s, however, that this area of medicine earned its official name of 'geriatrics.' The term was coined by an Austrian-American doctor named Ignatz Leo Nascher. Like many medical terms, this one comes from Greek. 'Geras' means 'old age,' and 'iatrikos' refers to a physician. In fact, 'Geras' has also appeared in Greek mythology to represent the God of old age. Today, Nascher is known as the 'father of geriatric medicine.'

Another pioneer of geriatrics, Dr. Marjory Warren, was dubbed the 'mother of geriatric medicine.' She brought modern geriatrics to the U.K. in the first half of the 20th century by campaigning for rehabilitation of elderly hospital patients. She used cutting-edge technology and methods of treatment, and emphasized the education of medical students in geriatrics. Her work inspired the Ministry of Health to establish geriatrics as an official discipline.

This recognition came a bit later in the U.S. In 1974, the National Institute on Aging was founded to conduct research on age-related health issues. Shortly afterward, the Veterans Health Administration established Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Care Centers (GRECCs) throughout the country in response to the growing population of elderly World War II veterans. In the late 1970s, Dr. Paul Beeson wrote a series of reports on the medical challenges of an aging population and called for an increase in geriatric training.

It wasn't until the early 1980s that the first geriatrics department was created, located at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Since then, geriatrics training has grown considerably. Today, approximately 100 American medical schools include it in their curricula. In addition to education, there has been an increase in aging research over the last few decades. Let's discuss some of the directions this research has taken.

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