Why It Matters: Health, Aging, and the Elderly

Why demonstrate an understanding of the social construction of health, and describe the processes and challenges associated with growing old?

This photo depicts medical workers with a face mask and gloves training for safety so they can enter infection zones.

Medical personnel are at the front lines of extremely dangerous work. Personal protective clothing is essential for any health worker entering an infection zone, as shown by these trainees for the UK’s National Health Service. (Photo courtesy of DFID – UK Department for International Development/flickr)

According to the World Health Organization and ABC Health News, on March 19, 2014 a “mystery” hemorrhagic fever outbreak occurred in Liberia and Sierra Leone. This outbreak was later confirmed to be Ebola, a disease first discovered in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 2014 outbreak started a chain reaction in West Africa, sickening more than 8,000 people and leaving more than 4,000 dead by October.

Ebola first entered the United States via U.S. missionary medical staff who were infected in West Africa and then transported home for treatment. The case of Thomas Eric Duncan, who unwittingly imported Ebola into the United States as he flew from Liberia to Texas in September 2014 to visit family, increased the level of fear.

As of 24 April 2016, the World Health Organization and respective governments have reported a total of 28,657 suspected cases and 11,325 deaths, though the WHO believes that this substantially understates the magnitude of the outbreak. Although the epidemic is no longer out of control, flare-ups of the disease are likely to continue for some time.

What is the best response to a horrific virus like this? Restrict visitors from West Africa, enhance training and protective gear for all U.S. medical workers and law enforcement? Many concerns surrounded the disease and few agreed upon the appropriate response.

The Ebola case brought many issues to the forefront. How would we know if we were in the cross-hairs of a large-scale Ebola epidemic in the United States? In the short term, how do we best prevent, identify, and treat current and potential cases?

The sociology of health encompasses social epidemiology, disease, mental health, disability, and medicalization. The way that we perceive health and illness is in constant evolution. As we learn to control existing diseases, new diseases develop. As our society evolves to be more global, the way that diseases spread evolves with it.

What does “health” mean to you? Do you believe that there are too many people taking medications in U.S. society? Are you skeptical about people claiming they are “addicted” to gambling or “addicted” to sex? Can you think of anything that was historically considered a disease but is now considered within a range of normality? Or anything that has recently become known as a disease that before was considered evidence of laziness or other character flaws? What are your thoughts about vaccinations? These are questions examined in the sociology of health.

In addition to studying the sociological implications of health, in this module you’ll also examine the sociological processes that accompany growing old. Age is not merely a biological function of the number of years one has lived, or of the physiological changes the body goes through during the life course. It is also a product of the social norms and expectations that apply to each stage of life. Age represents the wealth of life experiences that shape whom we become. With medical advancements that prolong human life, old age has taken on a new meaning in societies with the means to provide high-quality medical care. However, many aspects of the aging experience also depend on social class, race, gender, and other social factors.

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the social construction of health and the theoretical perspectives on health and medicine
  • Compare and contrast health care in the United States and abroad and describe major health disparities and issues within the United States
  • Evaluate the aging of society and summarize the theoretical perspectives on aging
  • Evaluate the aging of society and summarize the theoretical perspectives on aging
  • Examine the process of aging and the biological, social, and psychological changes and perceptions associated with growing old
  • Describe and give examples of challenges facing the elderly