Tag Archives: aging

PAAGE: Discussion Piece # 2 – Right To Die

In the United States our supposed inalienable human rights include, among others, freedom from torture, slavery, freedom of speech, religion, and the right to life. But what of death? If we possess the right to life, do we not also have the right then to choose how and when to dispossess that life? This question of the “right to die” has recently re-entered public debate and policy discussion via a controversial lawsuit against the state of New York aiming to secure the right to doctor-assisted suicide. But the legalization of doctor-assisted suicide must overcome two very cogent social stigmas: suicide and murder. Suicide, since the time of Durkheim if not earlier, has been classified as a sign of pathology – a social, and increasingly, individual pathology. The logic follows that an individual who chooses to commit suicide must not be in his or her right mind and be in need of psychological treatment, medication, and other more invasive forms of care. Similarly, the taking of another’s life is murder. It is the violation of another’s basic human right to life. Doctor-assisted suicide is situated somewhere in the gray territory between these two, engendering explosive criticism and rejection.

But, putting aside reactionary responses, many who have (had) a beloved family member or friend facing chronic and terminal conditions such Alzheimer’s disease and cancer are often sympathetic towards the idea of allowing one to choose how and when they will die. Several states in the U.S., including Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, have legalized assisted suicide for terminal patients, and have built legal frameworks to ensure the process is an ethical one. A common trend emerging from states in the U.S and other nations where assisted suicide has been legalized is that many whom express interest do not actually go through with it. Medical Anthropologist Frances Norwood, from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, draws a distinction between “euthanasia talk” and the actual act of euthanasia in her book on assisted-suicide in the Netherlands, The Maintenance of Life: Preventing Social Death through Euthanasia Talk and End-of-Life Care – Lessons from the Netherland (2009). This is an important distinction, as the ability to choose death for terminally ill patients opens space for discussion with trained professionals, family members, and loved ones about death. The option to choose how to die additionally preserves the dignity of the individual in question, as they exert a final measure of control over their life.

The question of physician-assisted suicide is particularly salient for anthropologists of aging and gerontologists. With life-extending medical treatments and technologies, seniors with once-terminal conditions now find their lives being extended by years, percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) feeding tubes being a prominent example. But what is their quality of life? Or perhaps I should say, their quality of death? If there was a legal system in place that allowed them to choose to end their life, would they? How can the debate around physician-assisted suicide be conceptually reframed to distance it from already marked concepts like suicide, murder, and death? What are other cultural and historical perspectives on euthanasia that might offer lessons to the still nascent debates underway in the U.S.?

Ender Ricart

AAGE interview with anthropologist Margaret Lock


Photo courtesy of Owen Egan


It is quite rare that debates about ageing take center stage in anthropology. As part of a new endeavor by AAGE we invite influential anthropologists to reflect on their experiences studying ageing, and to offer their views on possible futures for the field.
One scholar who has pushed our subject matter within and beyond its boundaries is Margaret Lock. Currently, Lock is the Marjorie Bronfman professor emerita at McGill University where she established the medical anthropology programme. She has published over 2oo articles and 17 books and won numerous prizes for these publications.

Last year, Margaret Lock published a new book entitled ‘The Alzheimer Conundrum: Entanglements of Aging and Dementia’ at Princeton University Press. During our interview, Lock explained how she initially started her project as a quest to understand the impact of genetic susceptibility tests on individuals, and had the good fortune of being able to follow a randomized clinical trial (RCT) in which offspring were told about their genetic susceptibility to Alzheimer disease. As it turned out, to fully understand the contribution of genetics to AD and the experiences of these tested individuals, she needed to study the concept of the disease itself. Her book has had a strong impact outside our discipline, receiving reviews in Nature, the Lancet Neurology and the New Scientist.

Part of Lock’s success can be explained by the topics she approaches, but it is also attributable to her capability to cross disciplinary divides. Lock explains that for anthropologists, it is essential to study diverse perspectives on the issue at hand. When teaching, she emphasizes that ‘if we want to do medical anthropology as best as we can, then it is important to grasp the fundamentals of the specific scientific or medical issue with which one is dealing’ in an interdisciplinary way. But, of course, anthropologists should inevitably incorporate ethnography into their project, whatever the subject matter – no other discipline will do this as we do.


Read the review of “The Alzheimer Conundrum” from the anthropology and medicine blog Somatosphere, by AAGE member Aaron Seaman

Her own engagement with ageing started with her outstanding work on menopause in Japan, where at that time no such research had been conducted before. She herself ‘fell into it sideways’ as she explained, influenced by work already going on in North America. During her career she has been inspired by numerous scholars but she was hard-pressed to come up with only one name; her formative period in anthropology was influenced by Geertz, Sahlins, Colson, Benedict, Mead, and later, scholars such as Haraway, Latour, Strathern, Allan Young, and Hacking. Moreover, having a biology background herself, she has always been attracted to think across the divide of biological and cultural anthropology, even though she remains firmly grounded in cultural anthropology. Nevertheless, already in preparation for her study in Japan she had become aware that medical anthropological literature had paid little attention to later life.

During our interview, she hypothesized that this might be related to our own anxieties about the ageing process, resulting in an avoidance of a confrontation with ageing as ‘we tend perhaps, not self-consciously, but unconsciously to be scared of the very idea of ageing’.

The task for anthropologists in the future is therefore not only to incorporate an anthropology of ageing into the wider discipline, but also for anthropologists working on ageing to cross the sub-disciplinary divides to make the relevance of our analyses known and to ensure a wider familiarity with our findings. This is a task, she proposed, that is set for the whole of anthropology in which geographical clusters and sub-disciplinary groups too often prevent analyses that go beyond their respective boundaries. Crossing these boundaries by communicating with media outside of mainstream academia is one arena that she anticipated as an essential direction for our discipline to take. I could not agree with her more, as we ourselves are responsible for making known the relevance of our discipline and findings, although perhaps I am a bit biased having a position at a multidisciplinary knowledge institute and in a medical faculty myself.

Lock has certainly been successful in this task of disseminating findings, and has published in journals with various backgrounds from anthropology to medicine, from law to epidemiology. Her advice for this kind of versatility and high productivity? Teaching students with a variety of backgrounds: “I learned a huge amount just simply by teaching to mixed classes not simply of anthropology students or even social science students, but that included basic scientists, would-be medical students, and so on”. This experience, repeated over many years, pushed Lock into taking a broader approach by showing her different ways of tackling subjects and of presenting them. One result has been the varied list of journals in which she has published to date. Her own commitment to showing the relevance of anthropology will certainly be taken a step further in the near future, as she is currently working on a popular scientific book on epigenetics with her co-author Gisli Paulson, to be published by Polity press. Given her track record so far, this is something to look out for!

Additional Links

Medical Anthropology programme McGill

A youtube movie of an interview with Margaret Lock about the Alzheimer Conundrum at the Agenda, TVO, the television broadcast of Ontario.

This entry is based on an interview conducted with Margaret Lock on 12 June 2014 by the Jolanda Lindenberg, AAGE member and Scientific Staff at the Leyden Academy, Netherlands

Retirement Abroad as Women’s Aging Strategy – Liesl Gambold

Retirement Abroad as Women’s Aging Strategy

Liesl Gambold, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Dalhousie University

Download full PDF here:AAQ34(2)GAMBOLD

Understanding the culture and lifestyle choices of retirees has never been so crucial. The aging baby boom population bubble means that by 2030 eighteen percent of the U.S. will be 65 or over. The lifestyle decisions of these individuals will have far-reaching implications culturally, politically and economically. Since more women are living their post-retirement lives alone and in economically challenging situations, this paper examines the mobility of older women in the form of international retirement migration as a strategy to ameliorate levels of economic and general well-being. Historically people have retired abroad for various reasons, but current practices suggest that retiring permanently in a foreign country has become an increasingly popular aging strategy. Retiring abroad does not come without serious challenges, however, as the strains of navigating the aging process are interwoven with living in a foreign culture. Based on research done in Mexico, and southern France, this paper highlights the efforts put forth by aging women to avoid the well-trodden path of retirement before them and to forge a new path, choose a new homeland, and perhaps, reinvent themselves a bit along the way.

Key words: gender, aging, retirement, migration

Cite As:

Gambold, Liesl. 2013. Retirement Abroad as Women’s Aging Strategy. Anthropology & Aging Quarterly 34(2): 184-198.

Postmenopausal Health and Disease from the Perspective of Evolutionary Medicine

Anthropology & Aging Quarterly Volume 34, issue 3 (September 2013) pp.61-86

Postmenopausal Health and Disease from the Perspective of Evolutionary Medicine

Andrew W. Froehle

Department of Community Health, Boonshoft School of Medicine Wright State University

Download PDF version here: AAQ34(3)FROEHLE


Menopause normally occurs between 45-55 years of age, marks the end of a woman’s reproductive lifespan, and is accompanied by a reduction in estrogen that has substantial physiological effects. The standard medical view is that these changes underlie high postmenopausal disease rates, defining menopause as an estrogen deficiency condition needing treatment. This view stems from the idea that extended postmenopausal longevity is a consequence of recent technological developments, such that women now outlive their evolutionarily-programmed physiological functional lifespan.Increasingly, however, researchers employing an evolutionary medicine framework have used data from comparative demography, comparative biology, and human behavioral ecology to challenge the mainstream medical view. Instead, these data suggest that a two-decade human postmenopausal lifespan is an evolved, species-typical trait that distinguishes humans from other primates, and has deep roots in our evolutionary past. This view rejects the inevitability of high rates of postmenopausal disease and the concept of menopause as pathology. Rather, high postmenopausal disease risk likely stems from specific lifestyle differences between industrialized societies and foraging societies of the type that dominated human evolutionary history. Women in industrialized societies tend to have higher estrogen levels during premenopausal life, and experience a greater reduction in estrogen across menopause than do women living in foraging societies, with potentially important physiological consequences. The anthropological approach to understanding postmenopausal disease risk reframes the postmenopausal lifespan as an integral period in the human life cycle, and offers alternative avenues for disease prevention by highlighting the importance of lifestyle effects on health.

Keywords: menopause, estrogen, evolution, human lifespan, aging

From Being to Ontogenetic Becoming: Commentary on Analytics of the Aging Body Ender Ricart, University of Chicago

Anthropology & Aging Quarterly Volume 34, issue 3 (September 2013) pp.52-60

From Being to Ontogenetic Becoming: Commentary on Analytics of the Aging Body

Ender Ricart

Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago

Download Full PDF here:AAQ34(3)RICART


Katrina L. Moore, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales (followed by author response)

Athena McLean, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work, Central Michigan University (here)



NEW Member Publication: Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course

LynchTransitionsIt began at the 2009 American Anthropological Association meeting in Philadelphia.  There, founding AAGE member Jay Sokolovsky and Publisher Marion Berghahn announced the start of a new book series devoted to the study of aging  and the life course in anthropology. This series became Life Course, Culture and Aging: Global Transformations and we are happy to announce that the first volume in the series has now arrived!

Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course, edited by AAGE members Caitrin Lynch and Jason Danely, features contributions from several AAGE members. You or your institution can purchase the book from Berghahn Books here. Even better, there is a 50% discount available with this flyer if you purchase it by July 31, and instructors can have their institution’s bookstore purchase student copies at paperback price! (around $30-35 for students, though the cover price is $95)

For details on how to get this price, contact: Janea V Brachfeld, janea.brachfeld@berghahnbooks.com Marketing and Publicity Assistant, Berghahn Books, Inc.20 Jay Street, Suite 512 | Brooklyn, NY 11201 | Tel: +1 (212) 233-6004 | Fax: +1 (212) 233-6007)

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Call for AAQ submissions for special issue “The Aging Body”

Deadline for submissions:      June 1, 2013    

This issue will focus on the aging body not only in terms of biophysical processes of maturation, but also in terms of the aging body’s cultural elaboration, its articulations with other “bodies,” such as Lock and Scheper-Hughes’ formulation of the social and political “body,” and the representation and manipulation of the “old body” through images, technologies, rituals, policies, movements and health practices.  We are interested not only in articles that challenge notions of the older body as merely frail or decrepit, but also articles that push conceptual and methodological boundaries of “the body” in its social and cultural contexts. As with many accepted theories in anthropology, theories of the body and embodiment are often framed with an implicit body in mind, and while this implicit body has been usefully critiqued from the perspective of gender, queer,and disability studies, anthropologists studying old age and aging are still developing their own distinct voice in this conversation. This issue of AAQ will draw out the diversity of approaches to the aging body,the challenges they bring to anthropological theories of the body, and the unique contributions of the anthropology of aging to this field.

Topics might include:

  • The ways the aging body is (mis)recognized through demographic and statistical discourse
  • The use of the aging body as a form of resistance to the hegemony of youth
  • Aging bodies as erotic bodies
  • Aging bodies as a challenge to notions of biopolitics
  • Depictions of the aging body vs. other bodies in popular media and/or artistic works
  • Cosmetics and pharmaceutical re-shaping of the aging body
  • Caring for the body as caring for the self
  • Bodily adornment and beautification
  • Painand the body in old age
  • Discourses and institutions that deindividuate or depersonalize the body
  • Body, memory, and aging in place
  • Gender and the aging body

Please contact Jason Danely if you are interested in submitting an article for this issue: jdanely@ric.edu