Gerontology, the study of aging, has become a major focus of attention in science and the professions. With increasing life expectancy and falling birth rates, populations are getting older. Increases in life expectancy in both developed and developing countries and increased needs for services for older persons have contributed to a growing volume of research and education on both basic and applied aspects of aging. Geriatrics, the branch of medicine that treats the clinical problems of late life, is also an area of expanding professional activity. Both gerontology and geriatrics emerged as disciplines immediately after World War II with the establishment of professional societies and specialized journals. Why it took so long, compared with other fields, for academic and professional interests in aging to emerge is an interesting question to pursue.
There have always been speculation and cultural myths about aging and the association of death with advanced chronological age. Gerald Gruman has described many myths about death and aging from ancient times to about 1800. The common interpretation in the Middle Ages was that death was either the outcome of humankind's fate as punishment for sin or an outcome of cosmic forces that were insurmountable. The growth of science in the nineteenth century was accompanied by the conviction that all phenomena of nature were governed by natural laws, and that these laws can be discovered through scientific investigation. The point of view that aging was not a supernatural phenomenon, knowable and explainable by study, was fully expressed by the Belgian mathematician, statistician, and astronomer Lambert Quetelet (1796–1874). In 1835, Quetelet wrote: "Man is born, grows up, and dies, according to certain laws which have never been properly investigated, either as a whole or in the mode of the mutual reactions" (Quetelet, 1968). Quetelet reviewed data on mortality in relation to age, sex, urban, rural, and national differences and found that the duration of human life varied according to the environments in which people lived.