Published online by Cambridge University Press: 06 August 2009
Interests in aging and senescence have characterized human thought since the earliest of recorded histories. Ancient Egyptian papyri and Chinese medical treatises, along with the writings of Aristotle and Socrates, describe various aspects of senescence and chronic degenerative conditions. They also detail methods for halting the insidious loss of function that accompanies longevity. Thoughts of mortality and immortality likely characterized the minds of our earliest Homo ancestors as well. The search for ways to halt the functional losses associated with growing old continues today. Humans are a long-lived species by any available standard. We are also unusual in that we remember our past and worry about the future: characteristics that we may share with a few other long-lived species or that may set us apart from all other species on earth. Long life provides ample time and opportunity to observe and remark on differences in longevity and vitality among relatives, friends, and acquaintances.
Prior to recent times, it is unlikely that many individuals ever actually survived sufficiently long enough to be considered very old by today's standards. Until recent times, anyone who survived 40 years was likely a grandparent and an elder; those still walking about at ages past 50 years were quite exceptional. Although some small proportion may have survived into their seventh decade of life, few would survive much beyond. Until recent decades, speculation and discourse on why and how particular persons outlived others and why one or another survived all others has outpaced scientific understanding.