- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

People ages 100 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, according to a recent study, and the trend is expected to continue.

And just as American women tend to live longer than men, female centenarians outnumber males by a margin of 5-to-1.

“Americans 85 and older are the fastest-growing population, and within that group, centenarians are, indeed, the fastest,” said Dr. Thomas Perls, associate professor of medicine at Boston University Medical Center and lead author of “Living to 100: Lessons in Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age.”

Dr. Perls, who is directing the New England Centenarian Study, the world’s largest study of this age group, said that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 50,454 persons at least 100 years old in the United States today. That compares with 5,000 in 1970 and 15,000 in 1980.

Said Daniel Perry, executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research: “Living to be 100 was once an oddity. But these days, Willard Scott greets a half-dozen people 100 or older every day on the ‘Today’ show.

“The number of centenarians doubles every eight to 10 years nationally. … Centenarians are experiencing a rate of survival unlike ever before, and there is no sign of this slacking off,” Mr. Perry said.

The Alliance for Aging Research is an advocacy group dedicated to improving the health and independence of Americans as they age.

“Many people still believe the myth that ‘the older you get, the sicker you get,’ when our studies and those of other researchers are revealing it is much more accurate the case that ‘the older you get, the healthier you’ve been,’” Dr. Perls said in a telephone interview.

He said one important part of the equation is that people who live to be 100 either “avoid or delay getting Alzheimer’s disease,” a common form of dementia that afflicts about half of all Americans 85 and older.

Mr. Perry said centenarians also tend to be people who avoided other life-threatening disorders common to older people, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. “After age 60, a person’s risk for getting a disease of aging will double,” he said.

Winifred K. Rossi, special assistant for planning in the National Institute on Aging, said extensive federally funded research has found that many centenarians “missed essentially all the killer diseases and disabilities” that afflicted others. Now the focus is on trying to find out what protected them.

“Genetics plays an exceptional role in longevity … so looking at the family tree is also important,” said Dr. Perls.

Dr. Perls said most people have the “genetic and environmental makeup that should get us” to survive until “our mid- to late 80s.” But even that is not happening, he said, as the average U.S. life expectancy is 77.

Both Dr. Perls and Mr. Perry cited factors such as diet, weight, smoking, exercise, family history, continued education, medical screenings, and wearing sunscreen and seat belts as affecting life span and health. Dr. Perls said a person also “could be adding more time” to his longevity by taking vitamin E supplements, which were recently linked to helping prevent Alzheimer’s.

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