Growing Old in Ancient Cultures

Are there themes in history that can inform our aging?

Posted Mar 22, 2017

“The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.”

                                                                                                            Aldous Huxley

Interest in aging and the well-being of elderly people is evident throughout recorded history. Although in past centuries the average life expectancy from birth was dramatically shorter, there have always been people who live into old age. This achievement is simply more common today. Reviewing perspectives on aging from a variety of cultures and times in human history reveals a nearly universal quest for the causes of aging and techniques to live a long and healthy life.

Societal influences profoundly affect our longevity and quality of life. How an individual or society treats older people is inextricably linked with medical knowledge, available technology, religious doctrine, health beliefs and socioeconomic forces. In earlier times the social standing of those reaching old age often depended on an individual’s value to the group, their strength, skill or knowledge and on available resources and religious beliefs. The Khoihoi, for example, a hunting and gathering tribe in Southwest Africa, had a tribal council that consisted of the headmen of all the clans. Elders of the various clans played a valuable role by serving as clan representatives to unify the clans and settle disputes among them.

Generally speaking, societies with plentiful resources have tended to treat older people well, but when times were difficult older members were neglected or even sacrificed in some cultures. In some societies, older people have been highly respected and enjoyed strong legal protections as a result of widely-held beliefs in the afterlife and in a departed spirit’s ability to intervene in the affairs of the living. A quick tour of views of aging in different cultures and times helps to position current views on aging (and our modern aging myths) within the larger context of how people have dealt with the reality of human aging throughout history.

Ancient Egypt

From the age of the pyramids (around 3000 B.C.) Egyptian society had highly developed family life and religious beliefs in an afterlife. Sons were expected to care for elderly parents, especially the father, and to maintain their tombs. Living to 110 years was considered the reward for a balanced and virtuous life. Aging was associated with illness and health beliefs centered on cleansing the body with ritual sweating, vomiting and bowel cleansing. The customary greeting was “How do you sweat?”

The Sir Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus that was written in 2800-2700 B.C. is one of the most ancient existing medical documents. It contains the earliest known written remedy for aging, titled The Book for Transforming an Old Man into a Youth of Twenty. In this book there are recipes for a special ointment and directions for its use: “It is a remover of wrinkles from the head. When the flesh is smeared therewith it becomes a beautifier of the skin, remover of blemishes, of all disfigurements, of all signs of age, of all weaknesses which are in the flesh.” In the margin is a note written in informal Coptic script by the scribe drawing the hieroglyphs: “Found effective myriad times.”    

The seventh hieroglyphic symbol from the right on the title is a bent human figure resting on a staff. This is the Egyptian hieroglyph indicating “old age” or “to grow old.” It is the earliest known artistic depiction of an old person. This papyrus tells us unmistakably that since the beginning of recorded history people have tried to minimize or avoid aging because of the diminishment of vitality and strength. The ambivalence regarding growing old is clear and will echo throughout history. We fear growing old. Though it is the alternative of death, to some it is even more threatening.

Another ancient Egyptian medical document, the Eber’s papyrus (c. 1550 B.C.) contains the earliest known attempt to explain the manifestations of aging. It describes urinary difficulties such as frequent urination and obstruction, cardiac pain, palpitations, deafness, eye diseases and malignancy. To the Egyptians, “debility through senile decay” was caused by “purulency of the heart.” This theory that some unknown process affects the heart and causes aging is reflected in other ancient cultures.

Ancient India

The advanced pre-Aryan culture around 2500-1500 B.C. had public sanitation, wells, and sewers. The Aryan invasion around 1500 B.C. resulted in the decline of this public health infrastructure but established Ayurvedic medicine, which persists to this day. Ayurvedic, meaning “Science of Life,” emphasizes mental and physical hygiene through diet, exercise, meditations, and medications.

Much ancient Indian thought is summarized in the Sushruta Samhita (400 A.D.), a medical text written by a surgeon and teacher of Ayurveda. The text deals with surgery, rejuvenation, and prolongation of life, as well as the goal of preparing the spirit for death. In the worldview represented by this text, illness and aging result from disharmony. Diagnosing an illness involves divination and observation. Four types of disease were recognized: trauma, bodily (internal imbalance), mental (excessive emotions) and natural (aging and physical deprivation).

Ancient China

Older people in ancient China were generally well respected and treated with reverence. From about 2900 B.C. health was based on Tao, “the way,” which focuses on the balance of nature’s duality as represented by the yin and yang. Following Tao meant living in moderation, equanimity and proper conduct. The emphasis was on preventing illness through the balance of earth, air, fire, water, and metal by means of specific exercises, diets and living in accord with the seasons.

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (200 B.C.) describes illness as imbalance and health and longevity as balance as called for by Tao. Some common treatments to restore balance have persisted into modernity and include acupuncture, herbal remedies, and dietary modification. Some aging processes such as reduced hearing were considered to be diseases. To the ancient Chinese the ideal was for life to end in very old age without sensory or mental impairment.