The number of centenarians in the U.S. is growing rapidly, according to a newreport from the U.S. Census Bureau. During the 1990s, the ranks of centenariansnearly doubled, from about 37,000 counted at the start of the decade, to morethan an estimated 70,000 today. And analysts at the Census suggest that thisper-decade doubling trend may continue, with the centenarian population possiblyreaching 834,000 by the middle of the next century.
The report, funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the NationalInstitutes of Health, does point out significant problems with information onthe true ages of people 95 and older, though the data are becoming more accuratewith improvements in birth records. But as scientists work to improve dataquality, the trends in the growth and characteristics of the very elderly arenow becoming evident, say NIA experts, as researchers intensify their study ofthis population.
"We are increasingly interested in the lives of these remarkable people," notesRichard M. Suzman, Ph.D., Associate Director of the NIA for Behavioral andSocial Research. "The growing numbers of extremely old people give us theopportunity to examine their lives in more detail. By doing so, we will be ableto discover the genetic, medical, social, and behavioral factors contributing tolongevity and robustness in very advanced age."
Suzman points out that scientists will be watching mortality rates of peopleover 50 very carefully to see if projections about the growth in the elderlypopulation, including centenarians, can be refined. The Census estimates range from projecting a lowof 265,000 centenarians in the year 2050 to a high-end calculation of about 4.2million. Its 'middle series' projection is 834,000.
According to the report, the centenarians share many of the characteristics thatCensus and other researchers have noted for people age 85 and above. Mostsignificantly:
- Four out of every five centenarians are women. Despite the dramatic slowingof death rates at the oldest ages over the past few decades, gains for men havebeen smaller and men still lag behind women in attaining age 100. Projectionssuggest that these differences will continue into the middle of the 21stcentury.
- The centenarian population, mostly non-Hispanic white today, will becomesignificantly more diverse in the coming years. Approximately 78 percent oftoday's centenarians are white, a proportion expected to decrease to about 55percent by 2050. The percentage of the older Black population is expected toremain the same at about 13 percent, with the proportion of Hispanics risingfrom 5.6 percent to about 20 percent and Asian and Pacific Islanders expected togrow from about 3 percent to nearly 11 percent.
- Only about half of the centenarians counted in 1990 had completed some highschool or more. This compares with four out of five people aged 65 through 69in 1990 with at least some high school. The impact of educational attainment, amajor determinant of health status, will be closely observed as the youngergroup, or cohort, moves toward very advanced age.
- The nation's centenarians are concentrated on both U.S. coasts, with about 10percent of the total number living in California and 8 percent making theirhomes in New York. A state-by-state analysis shows that, proportionally, Iowahas the highest percentage of centenarians among its own population, followed bySouth Dakota. (This description reflects a June 16, 1999, Census revision to thestate-by-state section of the report.)
- Internationally, the U.S. may have the highest proportion of centenariansamong people age 85 and older, although this comparison can only be made amongcountries with relatively good quality data. There are approximately 120centenarians per 10,000 people age 85 and older in the U.S.. This finding is inline with research indicating that life expectancy after 80 is higher in theU.S. than in a number of other developed countries.
The report is the latest in a series of joint demographic projects by the CensusBureau and the NIA to characterize the elderly population and examine itsdynamic growth in the past and as projected into the next century. It wasprepared by Victoria A. Velkoff, who heads the Aging Studies Branch at theCensus Bureau.
Specifically on the very elderly, the NIA has supported other research projects,including a Massachusetts study of centenarians by Thomas Perls, M.D., M.P.H.,of Harvard University and a study of centenarians in Europe and China by JamesVaupel, Ph.D., of Duke University and the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
The above story is based on materials provided by NIH-National Institute On Aging. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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