“Senile insanity due to atrophy of the brain, or exaggerated dotage, is, I feel sure, far more common than it once was.”
This was said by the great Victorian psychiatrist James Crichton Browne in 1891, in an address to students of the medical school at Leeds. Unlike many similar comments which are made today, this was not spurred by concerns about the rising number of elderly people. In fact, Crichton Browne was worried about falling numbers of elderly people. He claimed that every age group in society was benefitting from the fall in mortality rates caused by improving sanitation and health, except[it] the oldest; the over-65s. A smaller proportion of people, he suggested, were reaching an advanced age than had done 50 years before.
Much like twenty-first century commentators, Crichton Browne thought that old age was increasing in length: but at the other end. ‘Premature senility’ (people ‘growing old’ at younger and younger chronological ages) was his primary concern. ‘Modern life’, in particular the life of affluent, successful, urban men, was commonly blamed by Victorians for almost any evil they encountered, and Crichton-Browne invoked it to explain his crisis of ageing. The ‘high pressure existence’ to which the urban population were subjected, he suggested, literally wore people out in both body and mind. ‘Social Darwinism’, the idea that only the fittest can and should survive in society, was very much in the air, and Crichton Browne did not like it: ‘the competitive dispensation under which we live’, he wrote, was present from earliest childhood, and it was thus in ‘the nursery’ that the eventual degeneration of the elderly mind began.
While this might seem like a very negative attitude, Crichton Browne was in fact attempting to counter the negativity which he felt this struggle for survival had engendered. If human activity was causing people to age too soon, then regulating this activity could preserve the body and mind far beyond current expectations. Like most of his contemporaries, Crichton-Browne believed that ‘it is in the autumn of life that wild oats ripen and come to fruition’. In other words, if someone lives a life of excess (in work and in pleasure) they can expect to suffer the consequences of that lifestyle in a decrepit old age – unless they have a handy portrait in the attic, of course. Moderation, variety and temperance (though not necessarily total abstention) were recommended by a wide variety of Victorian authorities, from the religious to the financial to the medical, as the keys to a long, healthy and happy life. This doctrine of self-control and self-determination, told that the individual could, through their own efforts, control their destiny, both in this life and the next.
In some cases this led to a surprisingly optimistic and upbeat portrayal of the ageing process. While great longevity is a cause of concern in the twenty-first century, 100 years ago it was thought that a trend of more people living longer would also see a great improvement in the health of the elderly, and was therefore nothing to fear. Crichton Browne insisted that it was realistic for the students he was lecturing to see their patients live to 100 healthy years, and that they should also accept nothing else for themselves. While this might seem naively optimistic, Crichton Browne himself lived in reasonably good health all the way until his death at 98. Maybe he was on to something after all….