Robin Roach, BSN, MS, CIC Director, Infection Prevention and Control

Oregon Health and Science University
Portland, OR

October 3, 2014


Geriatrics is the branch of healthcare dealing with the physiological, pathological, psychological, economic, and sociological issues of aging.1Old age cannot be specifically defined for the meaning differs among societies and cultures. In the United States, for example, 65 is often considered the beginning of old age for this is the common time for retirement from the workforce. People in the 65-and-over age group are often called senior citizens; however, the calendar number may not represent the age at which an individual feels old or begins to experience symptoms associated with "being old." It remains an unanswered question as to whether longer life expectancy means more years with chronic disease.2Average life expectancy in the U.S. continues to increase. In 1900, the average American was expected to live for 47 years. Today, the average life expectancy is 78.49 years.2As greater numbers of the population enjoy a long life, the field of geriatrics will play a more prominent role in healthcare.

The field of geriatrics is an area of study for many scientists. The gerontologist healthcare provider is concerned with all aspects of the aging process, including the clinical, psychological, economic, and sociological issues encountered by older persons and the consequences for both the individual and society.3To do this, they must understand the changes that take place in the human body during middle age that may lead to diseases later in life. The field is aided by the work of biologists, who study body processes involved in senescence (aging); psychologists, who investigate changes in mental reactions in older persons; and sociologists, who study the role of an aging person in a changing world. Nursing professionals focus on health, all levels of prevention and rehabilitation where possible, while public health professionals focus on maximizing health in old age by promoting healthy behavior in one's earlier years, thereby maximizing quality of life and independence and compressing morbidity and mortality.2This multidisciplinary approach is a great benefit to the field of geriatrics.

Aging actually refers to the life history of the person or the processes of change in the person from the time of fertilization of the ovum until the death of the individual. The changes associated with senescence result in part from failure of body cells to function normally or to produce new body cells to replace those that are dead or malfunctioning. Normal cell function may be lost through infectious diseases, malnutrition, exposure to environmental hazards, or genetic influences. Among body cells that exhibit early signs of aging are those that normally cease dividing after reaching maturity.4One of the cardinal changes associated with aging that is relevant to infection preventionists (IPs) is a decline in immune function that occurs even among the healthy elderly, increasing their vulnerability to infection.