The population of the United States is growing inexorably older. With birth rates historically low and life expectancy continuing to rise, the age distribution of the population in the United States is growing steadily older. The portion of Americans who are aged 65 or older reached 12 percent in 2010 and is projected to be 20.2 percent by 2050 (Vincent and Velkoff, 2010). This demographic shift is occurring at a time of major economic and social changes, which have important implications for the growing elderly population.
The dramatic growth in the percentage of the U.S. population that is older than the traditional retirement age of 65, for example, is placing an increasing strain on the federal budget that will almost certainly lead to changes in the Social Security and Medicare programs, such as increases in the age of eligibility and perhaps changes in benefit levels (see National Research Council, 2012b; National Research Council and National Academy of Public Administration, 2010). Other changes, such as the move away from defined-benefit toward defined-contribution retirement plans and other changes in corporate and municipal pension plans, and the 2008 financial recession, all have economic implications for older people. They are also likely to make it more difficult for certain groups of future retirees to fund their retirements at the level that they had planned and would like.
Along with these economic changes, the social context in which older individuals and families function is also changing, affecting, among other things, the nature of certain types of social relationships and institutions that provide part of the support infrastructure available to older persons. Demographic and social trends—such as changes in marriage and fertility
preferences, the increasing fragility of unions, the decline of the intact nuclear family, the increasing amount of time for some young people to transition to adulthood, and the continuing improvements in health and disability at older ages—all influence the needs of older persons.
To deal effectively with the challenges created by population aging, it is vital to first understand these demographic, economic, and social changes and, to the extent possible, their causes, consequences, and implications. Sociology offers a knowledge base, a number of useful analytic approaches and tools, and unique theoretical perspectives that can be important aids to this task. Furthermore, sociology is at its heart an integrative science, and it has been suggested that sociology is suited for “integrating what is known about human behavior” (Gove, 1995, p. 1,197). It concerns itself with how social systems work and how various social institutions are interconnected, with how micro and macro social processes are linked, with how attitudes and values are formed, with how they differ between individuals and groups, and with how realities are socially constructed.
The chapters in Part I refer, whenever possible, to the papers that appear in Part II. Following this introduction, Chapter 2 lays out the diverse approaches that have been taken to the study of aging and presents a conceptual model of aging that can be used to situate and relate research on aging conducted in sociology and throughout the social sciences, including transdisciplinary work. This conceptual model served as guidance for the chapter’s review of research that appears in Part II of the report. Chapter 3 then identifies some new and emerging data needs and opportunities in the study of aging. Chapter 4 directly examines the roadblocks to future transdisciplinary research on aging—and also examines the bridges that make such work feasible. This work may eliminate the roadblocks, while researchers compile essential new data that can be used in a clearly delineated and yet flexible conceptual model. This will enable sociologists of aging and researchers in complementary fields to engage in transdisciplinary research, tackling fundamental questions, and providing insights on both individual and collective experiences of aging.
Consistent with the task given to the panel to identify and recommend to the National Institute on Aging’s (NIA’s) Division of Behavioral and Social Research (BSR) promising research directions that can reasonably be expected to have high payoff for the study of aging, the panel makes some thirteen recommendations in this report. Not all are of equal importance. The several recommendations having to do with the standardization of measures across data collections and disciplines based on a conceptual framework should be considered of the highest priority. Others that would permit a fuller understanding of the mechanisms that contribute to health outcomes, particularly those that would associate biomeasures and social and behavioral processes are also of high priority.
Human aging at both the individual and population level compels careful study. As life expectancy increases, the average individual is spending a greater proportion of the life span at an advanced age, and the population as a whole includes an increasing proportion of the aged. Aging has become a focus of study in virtually all areas of policy and academic research, spanning the basic and applied sciences in fields from anthropology, biology, and gerontology to engineering, architecture, and urban planning.
The diverse scholarly approaches to aging reflect the multifaceted and complex nature of aging and its many dimensions. Topics of attention include cognitive function, health, disability, financial, and emotional wellbeing, labor force participation, living arrangements, social ties and transfers, perceptions of aging and older persons, and public resource allocation. The study of aging also occurs at many different levels of analysis, from macro structures and systems, to the meso level of social institutions, the micro level of individual relationships and behaviors, and the even tighter focus at the level of physiology and biology (see Settersten and Angel, 2011). At any level of analysis, time is an important element. The concept of the life course, for example, captures the significance of the passage of time over the lifelong process of aging, as old age itself cannot be understood without an awareness of the accumulated impact of the decades that came before.
In addition to many different topics and levels of analysis, the study of aging can encompass many different kinds of questions, from the most applied to the quite philosophical. Some researchers are motivated to ask “What is the proper dose of a Beta blocker for older post-operative patients?” (Ahmed and Dell’Italia, 2004) and “How does urban/rural setting affect the quality of nursing home care?” (Kang, Meng, and Miller, 2011). Others seek answers to the questions “Does age bring wisdom?” (Grossmann et al., 2010) or “What is the meaning of life?” (Hill and Kaplan, 1999; Kaplan et al., 2000).
In the wide-ranging and diverse study of aging, sociology has often been at the forefront. Sociology is particularly well suited to that position as an integrative discipline that examines the operation of social institutions, the connections between macro and micro processes, the interaction of the social with the biological, and the social construction of reality over time. Already in 1979, the American Sociological Association recognized and created an institutional home for the sociology of aging by establishing what has subsequently become the section on Aging and the Life Course (Settersten and Angel, 2011). Today, a number of specialized journals publish social research on aging (e.g., The Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, The Gerontologist, Research on Aging, and Psychology of Aging)
and top general-interest sociology journals include aging-related research. The recent publication of the Handbook of Sociology of Aging (Settersten and Angel, 2011), a 700-page volume synthesizing 30 years of research, is the most recent and comprehensive expression of this enormously fertile field of study.
Sociology, of course, does not stand alone in the study of aging. As with other topics compelling concern and attention, the study of aging involves effort and approaches from many different fields. The study of aging has not only engaged many traditional disciplines—economics, biology, psychology—but has also fostered collaboration that has furthered new fields, such as social genomics, computational sociology, biodemography, and social neuroscience.
One particular example of successful merging of many disciplines is social epidemiology. Through the shared efforts of researchers originating in the disciplines of sociology, epidemiology, physiology, and medicine, significant gains have been made in understanding how factors in the social environment (such as socioeconomic position, income distribution, social networks, social support, social capital, community cohesion, work environment, neighborhood, and community) may be related to a broad range of mental, physical, and behavioral health outcomes. Social epidemiologists have successfully formulated and tested various hypotheses about the links between social conditions and health; they have also designed and implemented various health interventions to improve population health (see Gruenewald, Chapter 10).
This kind of work has come to be known as transdisciplinary. In the typology formulated by Rosenfield (1992), multidisciplinary work entails researchers from separate disciplines who work independently on the same issue from within their distinct disciplines, whereas interdisciplinary research involves scholars from different disciplines contributing distinct disciplinary perspectives to shared work on a common problem. Transdisciplinary work is a further step, as researchers from different disciplines collaborate to establish an overarching model that includes yet transcends their individual disciplines. The study of aging has called forth such collaboration from sociology and other disciplines.
Neither the continued development of transdisciplinary work, nor the significant role of sociology, will continue fruitfully without forethought and effort. Hurdles and limitations come in a variety of forms. Transdisciplinary work in any area faces many roadblocks, particularly institutional structures and funding sources geared to traditional disciplinary boundaries (see Chapter 4). The discipline of sociology also faces constraints that may impede its leadership in the study of aging. Indeed, the NIA’s BSR has noted a surprising decline in the number of grant submissions in the sociology of aging in recent years.
For some time, concerns have been expressed about the state of sociology as a discipline, the place of sociology within the social sciences, and the direction of the field (see Boje and Svallfors, 2000; Cole, 2001; Davis, 1994; Mayer, 2009). Controversies within the discipline—for example, regarding the acceptance of genetic and biological bases for social behavior, the correctness and utility of social experiments and interventions, or the direct relevance for sociology of advances in cognitive and neuroscience—have sometimes made progress as a discipline difficult to define or achieve. The subject matter of sociology also overlaps with that of many other social sciences, and thus the discipline lacks an exclusive province.
Finally, in approaching the topic of sociology of aging, it is important to be aware that a persistent shortcoming of sociology, in the view of many sociologists, is a lack of theory to guide empirical research (Hirsch, Michaels, and Friedman, 1987). To the extent that this criticism is valid, this would be a major shortcoming because theory is widely acknowledged to be a fundamental component of the research process. Indeed, some argue that theory development in the sociology of aging has been slow (Alley et al., 2010; Clark et al., 2011; Entwisle, 2007; Mayer, 2009; Yen, Michael, and Perdue, 2009), and the theories that have been postulated have not been sufficiently integrated into a larger explanatory framework (Bengtson, Burgess, and Parrott, 1997).
The perceived weakness of theoretical development in sociology has several possible sources. One is a deeply ingrained bias in the research community favoring empirical work. Methods and theory are often perceived as distinct enterprises, with some researchers and practitioners considering theorization as an esoteric exercise (Bengtson, Burgess, and Parrott, 1997). Ferraro (2009) suggests that some reviewers deem theoretical articles inappropriate for publication in scientific journals, although scientific hypotheses are typically generated from theories or previous research. In the sociology of aging, another factor constraining the development of theory may be the close institutional relationship with gerontology. As an integrating science field aiming to improve the lives of older persons, gerontology brings a practice perspective to substantive problem areas such as health or disability. Reflecting this practical orientation, the Gerontological Society of America membership includes a large number of practitioners and service providers such as clinicians and social workers. Gerontology is multidisciplinary in that the theory employed in social gerontology research often comes from disciplines other than sociology (Alley et al., 2010). A further constraint on the development of theory in sociology may be a lack of resources, as major funders prioritize primary data collection over analysis, integration, reflection, or synthesis.