Redefining longevity: the new centenarian spirit
The US centenarian population is doubling every decade – and they're redefining aging and longevity.
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Indeed, observes Meg Guroff, an editor at AARP The Magazine, "We're already seeing those implications in people much younger. We have many more readers who are 50 years old ... going back to school, adopting children, starting a second or third or fourth career."Skip to next paragraph
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As census workers fan out to take stock of the nation this year, they expect to find continued explosive growth in the centenarian population. Between 1990 and 2000, Americans 100 or older increased by 35 percent – from 37,306 to 50,454. The US Census projects that this group will increase more than 50 percent in this year's count, to 79,000. And a recent study in the North American Actuarial Journal projected 60 percent growth each decade of the coming century. The United Nations expects similar trends worldwide, estimating that by 2050, 1 in every 5,000 people will be over 100 years old, with China, the United States, Japan, and India having the largest populations of centenarians.
Today's 100-year-old has lived through two World Wars, the Depression, and every president since Teddy Roosevelt. What surprises some researchers is that 30 percent of them have done so with their health and wits intact. Something as simple (or complicated) as attitude can make the difference in living to 100 or beyond, and perhaps tip the scales toward a happy, productive second century.
These people are redefining aging as positive models of longevity, says Lynn Adler, who runs the Arizona-based nonprofit National Centenarian Awareness Project. She makes it her business to find as many centenarians as she can, profiling them on her website and acting as a publicist and cheerleader for them. Her project has its roots in an experience Ms. Adler had as a teenager in the company of her 60-something grandmother.
The two had gone shopping at a department store, recalls Adler: "When [my grandmother] went to make the purchase, the salesperson said to me 'How does she want to pay for this?' I said, 'Why don't you ask her?' I was just a kid. I was furious. She was just so condescending to my grandmother." Later, she adds, "my grandmother leaned over to me and said, 'No one wants to talk with you when you get old.' "
But Adler wants to talk to you when you get old. In her lifelong crusade against ageism, she likes to say that "centenarians are the celebrities of aging." Since starting her nonprofit in 1985, Adler has shined a light on the lives of active centenarians. By "active," she means they have "the mental acuity to continue to enjoy whatever it is that brings meaning to one's life.