The ranks of the nation's most senior citizens may be tiny, but their numbers will be growing steadily for the foreseeable future, the federal government says.
Centenarians, people age 100 years or more, are "rare," representing fewer than two people out of every 10,000 in the U.S. population, the Census Bureau said in a report released earlier this month. But this age group has been growing: In 1980, demographers counted 32,194 centenarians. By 2010, the number had jumped nearly 66 percent, to 53,364.
The "rise of the wrinklies" – a phrase used since 1998 by British author Fred Pearce – is expected to continue at an astonishing clip: There will be 78,000 U.S. centenarians in 2015, 143,000 in 2025, 188,000 in 2035, 310,000 in 2045, and 690,000 in 2060, according to projections based on the 2010 census. That's a nearly ninefold increase in the number of centenarians over the next 45 years compared to a projected increase in the overall U.S. population by 2060 of just 33 percent.
These trends are "not a mystery or a surprise," said Amy Symens Smith, chief of the age and special populations branch at the Census Bureau, which produced the report, "Centenarians: 2010."
All of the elderly age groups are growing in size, and "we've got this big group of baby boomers who are coming up," Ms. Smith said, noting that the eldest members of that generation (those born in 1946) turned 65 last year.
But even with the surging elderly population, the U.S. is not as "gray" as other countries, the report notes.
The centenarians' share of the U.S. population is 1.73 people per 10,000, lower than the United Kingdom's 1.95 per 10,000 or France's 2.70 per 10,000.
Japan, however, is the global leader with 3.43 residents 100 years or older per 10,000 persons.
Aging populations appear to be a worldwide phenomenon because of global declines in birthrates, improved health care and nutrition, better education and other factors. The trend is so powerful that around the year 2018, the number of people in the world aged 65 and older is expected to surpass the number of people age 5 and younger.
Such a turnaround is unprecedented in human history and "probably will be true for the rest of human history," said Richard Suzman, director of the National Institute on Aging's division of behavioral and social research.
It once was nearly impossible to imagine reaching the age of 100, the 2009 report says.
"Over the course of human history, the odds of living from birth to age 100" may have been 1 in 20 million, researchers Kevin Kinsella and Wan He wrote in "An Aging World: 2008." Today, it is about 1 in 50 for women in "low-mortality nations," such as Japan and Sweden, they noted.
Other highlights of the "Centenarians: 2010" report:
About 92 percent of U.S. centenarians were between ages 100 and 104. Another 330 persons were "supercentenarians," 110 or older.
Most centenarians – 8 in 10 – were women.
Nearly 44,000 centenarians were white, compared to 6,516 who were black and 3,089 who were Hispanic.
Regarding living arrangements, the bureau estimated that roughly a third of centenarians lived with family members, a third were in nursing homes and a third lived alone. White centenarians were least likely to be living with relatives, compared with Hispanics, who were highly likely to live with their families.
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