The reputation of aging in ancient and current mythology

Why the pursuit of anti-aging science?  I take a short break from science in this blog entry and look at myths about aging and how aging is viewed in popular folklore – ancient and current.  These myths are important because aging science exists in our more-general culture and efforts to suggest an impending possibility for life-extension are often met with misplaced negative reactions. 

The reputation of aging in our culture is generally not a good one.  Facts about aging are often misperceived.   Aging is usually ignored, viewed in a context of resignation, or felt to be irrelevant until it is imminent.  Diseases and accidents are seen to be the main causes of death even though those diseases and accidents are ones of old age.  Myths about aging, old ones and modern ones, provide insights into where our culture has been and where it is now with respect to aging.

In ancient Greece aging was seen as ugly and tragic – except in Sparta

The paper Old Age in Ancient Greece: Narratives of desire, narratives of disgust illustrates how some of the current ambivalences about aging have very early roots.  “The Greek habit of dividing the world into mutually exclusive categories was a hallmark of their culture. One such division, between youth and old age, formed a persistent theme in Greek myth, poetry and theatre. Youth – neotas – was sweet, beautiful and heroic. To leave youth meant one quickly passed the threshold to old age – gems. Old age was ugly, mean and tragic. There was no middle ground, no third age. Sparta, the city state least inclined toward literature, litigation, art and trade provides an instructive contrast. Here an unchanging politics engendered an unending respect for those older than oneself. This was institutionalized in the powers of the Gerousia or Council of Elders.”

In Greek mythology “GERAS was the spirit (daimon) of old age, one of the malevolent spirits spawned by the goddess Nyx (Night). — He was depicted as a tiny shrivelled up old man. Geras’ opposite number was the goddess of youth, Hebe(ref).”

Old people were very rare in ancient Rome and seen with a mixture of disdain and respect

From Old age in ancient Rome: Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence look at what it meant to become a senior citizen in ancient Rome – “Rome, was the first ever metropolis, containing one million people and an urban culture that included architectural achievements unsurpassed until the modern period. This picture of an almost modern nation masks another of massive inequality, alongside sickness and disease that have not been experienced in the West for generations. Life expectancy at birth was short: on average roughly twenty-five to thirty years, with 50 per cent of those born not passing the age of ten. In other words, the demographic regime was not unlike that experienced in countries today such as Botswana through the causes of AIDS, international debt, poverty and inequality–a far cry from the modern Western world where average life expectancy becomes ever-higher and runs well into the seventies. A key question for understanding Rome is how society viewed those few people who survived into old age and experienced a life-span not unlike our own today.  — In short, once a man had reached the chronological age of sixty, he could step down from his formal obligations as a citizen and lead a life of leisure. This departure from public life was double-edged: it could be seen as a lifestyle that was characterized as productive (or indulgent) leisure but it could also mean social marginalization. Moving out of public life in effect led to a loss of social power and status in the eyes of those still in power. Retiring from public life was no easier for individuals in the Roman period than it is for some today–many of whom continue to work after their sixty-fifth birthday. Despite this, and the fact that there was no social marker, no rite of transition to mark this phase, there was pressure for older men to stand down in favour of younger. “   This sounds a lot like it is today.

Saturn was the god of Roman mythology who ruled over old age, but he was a very multi-faceted god with numerous other duties(ref). 

In the good-old-days, aging was generally seen as a crummy deal

Although we like to think that aging was seen in romantic terms in the good-old-days, the opposite seems to be true, at least in Western societies.  From Aging and Death in Folklore:   “For most pre-industrial cultures, life’s last chapter has been a bitter one. Surviving folklore reflects widespread resignation as to the inevitability of impoverishment, sexual impotence, failing health and vitality, and the loss of family and community status. No one expected the impossible. Such euphemisms as “golden years” and “senior citizens” did not exist.

  • You cannot teach an old dog new tricks.
  • There is no fool like an old fool.
  • An old man who takes a young wife invites Death to the wedding.
  • Nothing good will come from an old man who still wants to dance.
  • For an old man to marry is like wanting to harvest in the wintertime.
  • Old people can dye their hair, but they can’t change their backs.
  • Age is poverty.
  • Age is a troublesome guest.
  • Age is a sickness from which everyone must die.
  • Youth rises, age falls.
  • A young wife is an old man’s dispatch horse to the grave.
  • A young woman with an old husband is a wife by day and a widow by night.
  • A woman’s beauty, an echo in the forest, and a rainbow all quickly disappear.
  • When the old cow dances, her claws rattle.
  • When the wolf grows old, the crows ride him.

Source: Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon, vol. 1, cols. 55, 58-60; Simrock, Die deutschen Sprichwörter, pp. 281, 614; Jente, Proverbia Communia, nos. 28, 102.

“These proverbs reflect a chapter of life that most of us would prefer to ignore. We do not like to be reminded of our own mortality, and in today’s world, institutions such as hospitals, hospices, retirement centers, and funeral homes (euphemisms abound in the language of death!) shield us from the worst of the Grim Reaper’s ravages. We cope, or so it might seem, by pretending that death does not exist(ref).”

Old women were particularly distrusted in folklore.

From the same source, Aging and Death in Folklore:   “In spite of the numerous tales and proverbs celebrating the wisdom of old people and promoting their care, folklore is replete with reflections of a basic distrust of age. Various demonic personages, notably changelings and the devil himself, can be rendered powerless by tricking them into revealing their age. More significantly, in pre-industrial Europe superstitions abound that cast suspicion at old people, especially women. Proverbs and popular superstitions state the claim succinctly:

  • If the devil can’t come himself, he sends an old woman.
  • It is not good if one goes out in the morning and encounters an old woman.
  • He who walks between two old women early in the morning shall have only bad luck the rest of the day.
  • To meet old women first thing in the morning means bad luck; young people, good luck.
  • Many men would rather let themselves be beaten to death, than to pass between two old women.
  • A person on his way to an important undertaking will have bad luck if he encounters an old woman. Encountering a young girl will bring him good luck.

Source: Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon, vol. 4, col. 1105. Simrock, Die deutschen Sprichwörter, p. 554; Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, vol. 3, items 58, 380, 791, 938, 1015.”

“Further, the sinister nature of old women is reflected in numerous folktales, for example: An old woman, promised a pair of shoes by the devil if she could bring discord to a happily married couple, told the wife that she could increase her husband’s love by cutting a few hairs from his chin. She then told the husband that his wife was plotting to cut his throat while he slept. The man pretended to sleep. Seeing his wife silently approaching with a razor, he struck her dead with a stick.”

“Source: Retold from “An Old Woman Sows Discord,” Ranke, Folktales of Germany, no. 66. Type 1353.

Such tales help explain the widespread superstition, documented above, that if the first person you saw in the morning was an old woman, you would have bad luck.”

There are many current myths about aging

Many websites elaborate and refute current myths about what aging is like.  One set of examples is from The Five Myths of Aging By  Lauri M. Aesoph N.D.The myths discussed and refuted there are:

“Myth #1: When I get old, I’ll become senile.

“Myth #2: Old age means losing all my teeth.

“Myth #3: The older I get, the sicker I’ll get.

“Myth #4: Lifestyle changes won’t help me when I get old.

“Myth #5: As long as I maintain the eating habits I had when I was younger, I’ll stay healthy.”

Another set of myths is treated in the website 5 Common Myths About Aging By Deborah Kotz.  They are:

1.     Losing those few extra pounds will extend your life.

2.     You ‘ll need a hearing aid.

3.     You’re bound to get crotchety and withdrawn.

4.     Senility is inevitable.

5.     You won’t have the energy to exercise well in your 80s 

Common myths relate to the conditions people expect when aging

A list of more-subtle myths is in the site COMMON MYTHS OF AGING by DeLee Lantz, Ph.D.  The examples and comments are drawn from a NIH questionnaire.

“1.  Baby boomers are the faster growing segment of the population.  False. Fact:   There are more than 3 million Americans over the age of 85. That number is expected to quadruple by the year 2040, when there will be more than 12 million people in that age group. The population age 85 and older is the fastest growing age group in the U.S. 

2.  Families don’t usually bother with older relatives.  False. Fact: Most older people live close to their    children and see them often. Many live with their    spouses. An estimated 80% of men and 60% of    women live in family settings. Only 5% of the older    populations lives in nursing homes.    

3.  Everyone becomes confused or forgetful if they live long enoughFact:  Confusion and serious forgetfulness in old age can be caused by Alzheimer’s disease or other conditions that result in irreversible damage to the brain. But at least 100 other problems can bring on the same symptoms. A minor head injury, high fever, poor nutrition, adverse drug reactions, and depression also can lead to confusion. These conditions are treatable, however, and the confusion they cause can be eliminated.    

4.  You can become too old to exercise.  False.  Fact:   Exercise at any age can help strengthen the heart and lungs and lower blood pressure. It also can improve muscle strength, and, if carefully chosen, lessen bone loss with age. 

5.  Heart disease is a much bigger problem for older men than for older women. False.   Fact:  The risk of heart disease increases dramatically for women after menopause. By age 65, both men and women have a one in three chance of showing symptoms. But risks can    be significantly reduced by following a healthy  diet and exercising.  

You can become too old to exercise. False.  Fact:   Exercise at any age can help strengthen the heart and lungs and lower blood pressure. It also can improve muscle strength, and, if carefully chosen, lessen bone loss with age.

7.  Heart disease is a much bigger problem for older men than for older women. False Fact:The risk of heart disease increases dramatically for women after menopause. By age 65, both men and women have a one in    three chance of showing symptoms. But risks can    be significantly reduced by following a healthy diet and exercising.  

8.  The older you get, the less you sleep.  False.  Fact: In later life, it’s the quality of sleep that declines, not total sleep time. Researchers found that sleep tends to become more fragmented as people age. A number of reports suggest that older people are less likely than younger people  to stay awake throughout the day and that older people tend to take more naps than younger people.      

9.   Most older people are depressed. Why shouldn’t they be? False.    Fact:  Most older people are not depressed. When  it does occur, depression is treatable throughout    the life cycle using a variety of approaches, such   family support, psychotherapy, or antidepressant medications.  A physician can determine whether    the depression is caused by medication an older   person might be taking, by physical illness, stress,    or other factors.  

10.  There’s no point in screening older people for cancer because they can’t be treated.  False.   Fact:  Many older people can beat cancer,  especially if it’s found early. Over half of all cancers occur in people 65 and older, which  means that screening for cancer in this age group is especially important.  

11.  If your parent had Alzheimer’s DIsease, you  will most likely get it.  False.  Fact: The overwhelming number of people with Alzheimer’s disease have not inherited the disorder. In a few families, scientists have seen an extremely high incidence of the disease and have identified genes in these families which they think may be responsible.  

12.  As your body changes with age, so does your personality.   False.Fact:  Research has found that, except for the changes that can result from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, personality is one of the few constants of life. That is, you are likely to age much as you’ve lived.

13.  Older people might as well accept urinary accidents as a fact of life. False. Fact:  Urinary incontinence is a symptom, not a disease.  Usually, it is caused by specific changes in body function that can result from infection, diseases, pregnancy, or the use of certain medications. A variety of treatment options are available for people who seek medical attention.

14.  Falls and injuries just naturally happen to older people.  False.Fact: Falls are the most common cause of injuries among people over age 65. But many of these injuries, which result in broken bones, can be avoided. Regular vision and hearing tests and good safety habits can help prevent accidents. Knowing whether your medications affect balance and coordination is also a good idea.    

15.  Everyone eventually gets cataracts.   False.  Fact: Not everyone gets cataracts, although a great many older people do. Some 18 percent of    people between the ages of 65 and 74 have cataracts, while more than 40 percent of those  between 75 and 85 have the problem. Cataracts  can be treated very successfully with surgery; more than 90 percent of people say they can see better after the procedure. 

16.  “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  False.  Fact:  People at any age can learn new information and skills. Research indicates that older people can obtain new skills and improve old ones, including how to use a computer. 

There are many current myths and half-myths about aging science and the impact of life extension on society

This list is my own.

1.     Aging is part of the natural order Facts:  True and true also for death.  But lifespans vary greatly by species and human lifespans have varied significantly and can probably be extended significantly.

2.     Aging is inevitable; nothing can be done about it. Again, the inevitability is historically true but not necessarily true in the future.  Things can be done today to modulate the rate of aging within limits.  Lifestyle and dietary interventions can significantly delay physiological aging as can many poor habits accelerate it.  Further, it is my opinion that by 2017 we will see available interventions that will extend average lifespans by about 10 years in advanced countries.  Further, I project that by 2022 we will see interventions that will extend average human lifespans by more than 100 years.

3.     All the talk about social consequences of extending lifespans is irrelevant because life extension techniques are in the future and may never happen.  Out and out false!  First of all, independent of any special interventions our average lifespans are getting longer at a furious rate due to changes in our epigenomes, by about four hours every day.  See the blog entries , The Social ethics of longevity and Average US life expectancy is up 73 days in one year.  Increasing  knowledge of healthy lifestyles and dietary patterns and health-promoting supplements is leading millions of people to live longer, and the first wave of powerful science-based anti-aging interventions is probably only 5 years away.

4.     Social consequences of increased longevity are possibly things to think about in the future, but are not relevant now.  Again, false.  Some initial social consequences are being felt now.  It is in the news that the first wave of baby boomers is turning 65 this year, 75 million people who will be retiring, and drawing on federal health care and social security programs, programs predicated and funded on the basis of shorter projected life spans.

5.     Extending lifespans is not a good idea because it will overwhelm our healthcare system and send healthcare costs over the top.  While such a consequence on our healthcare system may be true in the short term, in the longer term the opposite is true.  All experiments that extend the lives of animals as well as theory points to the conclusion that extension of lifespan and extension of healthspan go hand-in-hand.  The diseases of old age still occur with the extension of lives but they are postponed proportionally .  So, if we could extend everyone’s lifespan in the US by 10 years, the result would be a precipitous drop in age-related cancers, dementia, cases of diabetes, fall injuries, etc.  As more people are becoming eligible for Medicare now, they are generally healthier than were people entering Medicare a dozen years ago.

6.     Extending lifespans is not a good idea because adding many unproductive older people would be an unbearable burden on the working and productive young.  Again, the opposite is true.  Many tens of millions of educated and skilled working adults representing trillions of dollars in human capital would stay as productive contributors in the workforce, utilizing their accumulated human capital to produce innovations and wealth.  Of course many things like raising retirement ages will have to happen to take advantage of that human capital.  We will also have to change a number of views about older people for them to be employable and paid attention to, and views about working in new careers among the older people themselves.  See the blog entries Getting the world ready for radical life extension, Social ethics of longevity, and Social evolution and biological evolution – another dialog with Marios Kyriazis.

7.     Old people tend to be rigid and set in their ways, so having a society with lots of old people due to life extension will lead to things becoming fixed and rigid.  The stereotype is not correct though many older people do tend to shrivel up and become rigid, particularly people who retire and seek “the good life” in a warmer climate but find nothing particularly generative or relevant.  Speaking personally , I was a forward-looking chance-taker in my youth, at the age of 22 in 1952 throwing myself into a completely undeveloped path called computers hoping that would lead to a good and very long career.  It did.  Fifty five years later in 2007 at the age of 77, I decided to take another chance and throw myself into another undeveloped path, longevity science with an eye to life extension, hoping that will lead to another good and very long career.  And that shows initial promise of happening.  I see myself contributing to society as much as I ever have in my life.  I have made several new close friends and colleagues during the last year and see my life as branching out in multiple new directions.  I think I am not unique.  Men and women in their 60s, 70s and 80s in good health and with good mental capabilities have a great capacity to innovate, to do things new and to create.  In fact we can take chances we might have hesitated to take in our youths because we have already lived a normal successful life.  We have little to loose and everything to gain. 

Average lifespan has nearly tripled since the time of the Romans and we have accommodated.  We will probably have the scientific possibility of tripling it again within a couple of decades.   This time the accommodation in our thinking and institutions will have to happen a lot faster for the possibility to become real – in decades rather than in millennia.   

 Enough about myths for now.  The next post will be back on the science of aging. 

About Vince Giuliano

Being a follower, connoisseur, and interpreter of longevity research is my latest career. I have been at this part-time for well over a decade, and in 2007 this became my mainline activity. In earlier reincarnations of my career. I was founding dean of a graduate school and a university professor at the State University of New York, a senior consultant working in a variety of fields at Arthur D. Little, Inc., Chief Scientist and C00 of Mirror Systems, a software company, and an international Internet consultant. I got off the ground with one of the earliest PhD's from Harvard in a field later to become known as computer science. Because there was no academic field of computer science at the time, to get through I had to qualify myself in hard sciences, so my studies focused heavily on quantum physics. In various ways I contributed to the Computer Revolution starting in the 1950s and the Internet Revolution starting in the late 1980s. I am now engaged in doing the same for The Longevity Revolution. I have published something like 200 books and papers as well as over 430 substantive.entries in this blog, and have enjoyed various periods of notoriety. If you do a Google search on Vincent E. Giuliano, most if not all of the entries on the first few pages that come up will be ones relating to me. I have a general writings site at and an extensive site of my art at Please note that I have recently changed my mailbox to
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