Energy, Aging, and Neurasthenia: A Historical Perspective


  • Michael Andersen University of Copenhagen



aging, disease, neurasthenia, energy


That there is an association between energy and aging may seem commonsensical in modern society. Nonetheless, the question of how aging came to be associated with energy is less well known. This article explores how the 19th century disease of neurasthenia became related to aging through contemporaneous ideas about productivity, energy surplus and energy dissipation based on an analysis of how a lack of energy was featured as a symptom of the disease. It examines the specific historical intersection where a lack of energy was related to a diagnosis, illustrates how aging and energy have become intrinsically tied to each other and how the focus on the productive uses of energy has antecedents in religion as well as moral economics. As aging continues to be considered a problem in modern society--in large part due to the inherent unproductivity associated with old age caused by a lack of energy--the discourses surrounding neurasthenia demonstrate how the concept of energy manifested itself in contemporaneous consciousness.

Author Biography

Michael Andersen, University of Copenhagen

Michael Andersen PhD, is a lecturer in Ethnology at the University of Copenhagen. He has done research on illness, human enhancement and death as well as on tea production in Darjeeling, India.


Adler, Felix. The Spiritual Attitude Towards Old Age. New York: New York Society for Ethical Culture, 1906.

Beard, George M. "Neurasthenia, or Nervous Exhaustion." Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, no. 18 (1869): 1-11

---. American Nervousness, Its Causes and Consequences: A Supplement to Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia). New York: Putnam, 1881.

---. A Practical Treatise on Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia): Its Symptoms, Nature, Sequences, Treatment. Edited by Alphonso D. Rockwell. New York: Kraus Reprint, 1971 [1880].

Brown, John. Elementae Medicinae. Los Angeles: HardPress Publishing, 2012 [1780].

Burrow, John A. The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Butler, Robert. N. and Herbert P. Gleason. Productive Aging: Enhancing Vitality in Later Life. New York: Springer, 1985.

Calasanti, Toni M. "The Social Creation of Dependence, Dependency Ratios and the Elderly in the United States: A Critical Analysis." Social Science & Medicine 23, no. 12 (1986): 1229–1236.

Canguilhem, Georges. Knowledge of Life. Translated by Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Canstatt, Karl Friedrich. Die Krankheiten des hoheren Alters und ihre Heilung (The diseases of old age and their cure). New York: Arno Press, 1979 [1839].

Cheyne, George. George Cheyne: The English Malady (1733). Edited by Roy Porter. London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1991 [1733].

Cohen, Lawrence. "Introduction: Thinking about Dementia." In Thinking about Dementia: Culture, Loss, and the Anthropology of Senility, edited by Annette Leibin and Lawrence Cohen, 1–19. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2006.

Cole, Thomas R. The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

---. "The Propehcy of Senescence – G. Stanley Hall and the Reconstruction of Old Age in Twentieth-Century America." In Societal Impacts of Aging – Historical Perspectives, edited by Klaus Warner Schaie and W. Andrew Achenbaum, 165–181. New York: Springer Publishing, 1993.

Descartes, René. Meditationer over den første filosofi (Meditations on first philosophy). København: Det lille forlag, 2002 [1619].

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Edited by James Strachey, Anna Freud, Carrie Lee Rothgeb and Angela Richards. London: Hogarth Press, 1953 [1895].

---. Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton, 1962 [1929].

Fries, James F. "Aging, Natural Death, and the Compression of Morbidity." The New England Journal of Medicine, no. 303 (1980): 130–135.

Goetz, Christopher G. "Poor Beard!!" Neurology 57 no. 3 (2001): 510–514.

Katz, Steven. "Hold On! Falling, Embodiment, and the Materiality of Old Age." In Corpus: An Interdisciplinary Reader on Bodies and Knowledge, edited by Monica Casper and Paisley Currah, 187–206. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Kaufman, Sharon. "Dementia-Near-Death and ‘Life Itself’" In Thinking about Dementia: Culture, Loss, and the Anthropology of Senility, edited by Annette Leibin and Lawrence Cohen, 23–42. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2006.

Kirk, Henning. "Geriatric Medicine and the Categorisation of Old Age – The Historical Linkage." Ageing & Society 12 (1992): 482–497.

Kirk, Henning. Da alderen blev en diagnose (When age became a diagnosis). København: Munksgaard, 1995.

Kräupl Taylor, Frederick. The Concepts of Illness, Disease, and Morbus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Kleinman, Arthur. Social Origins of Distress and Disease: Depression, Neurasthenia, and Pain in Modern China. London: Yale University Press, 1988.

Lamb, Sarah. "On Being (Not) Old: Agency, Self-care, and Life-course Aspirations in the United States." In Medical Anthropology Quarterly 0 (2018): 1-19.

Lassen, Aske J., and Michael Andersen. "What Enhancement Techniques Suggest About the Good Death." In Culture Unbound, no. 8 (2016): 104–121.

Lutz, Tom. American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History. New York: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Books in Association with New Left Review, 1976 [1867].

Metchnikoff, Élie. The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies. London: Springer Publishing Company, 2004 [1908].

Moody, Harry. "Ageing, Meaning and the Allocation of Resources." In Ageing and Society, no. 15 (1995): 163–184

Nascher, Ignatz. The Diseases of Old Age and their Treatment. Philadelhia: Blakiston, 1914.

Nietzsche, Friedrich W. The Will to Power. Translated by Anthony M. Ludovici. London: Barnes and Noble, 2006 [1906].

Payne, Brendan A. I., and Patrick Chinnery. "Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Aging: Much Progress but Many Unresolved Questions." Biochimica et Biophysica Acta 1847, no. 11 (2015): 1347–1353.

Porter, Roy, and Dorothy Porter. In Sickness and in Health: The British Experience 1650–1850. London: Fourth Estate, 1988.

Porter, Roy. "Nervousness, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Style: From Luxury to Labour." In Cultures of Neurasthenia from Beard to the First World War, edited by Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Roy Porter, 31–49. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

Rabinbach, Anson. The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.

Rosenberg, Charles E. Explaining Epidemics and Other Studies in the hHstory of Medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Rosenberg, Charles E. 2003. "What is disease? In memory of Owsei Temkin." Bull Hist Med, no. 77 (2003): 491-505.

Rowe, John. W., and Robert I. Kahn. "Human Aging: Usual and Successful." Science, no. 237 (1987): 143–149.

Sengoopta, Chandak. "’A Mob of Incoherent Symptoms’? Neurasthenia in British Medical Discourse, 1860–1920." In Cultures of Neurasthenia from Beard to the First World War, edited by Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Roy Porter, 97–115. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Edited by Nora Crook. London: W. Pickering, 1996 [1818].

Shephard, Ben. A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century. New York: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Shorter, Edward. From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era. New York: Free Press, 1992.

Skultans, Vieda. "A Historical Disorder: Neurasthenia and the Testimony of Lives in Latvia." Anthropology & Medicine 4, no. 1 (1997): 7–24.

Stephens, Charles A. Pluri-cellular Man: Whence and What is the Intellect, Or "Soul"? What Becomes of the Soul? Is it Possible to Save the Soul? Norway Lake: Laboratory Company, 1892.

Straus, Stephen E. "History of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome." Review of Infectious Diseases 13, no. 1 (1991): 2–7.

Thomson, Mathew. "Neurasthenia in Britain: An Overview." In Cultures of Neurasthenia from Beard to the First World War, edited by Roy Porter and Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra, 77–95. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 2001.

Tiles, Mary. "The Normal and Pathological: The Concept of a Scientific Medicine." The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, no. 44 (1993): 729–742.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Other Writings. Translated by Gordon C. Wells. London: Penguin Books, 2002 [1905].