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Number of centenarians on the rise in U.S.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Sep. 17--Join the conversation

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Sounds of honking horns, cheering crowds and bouts of "happy birthday" wafted through normally quiet neighborhoods this year as friends and family, not letting the coronavirus pandemic stop them, celebrated loved ones turning 100.

The number of centenarians around the world is on the rise, data shows, a generation of people who have survived the 1918 influenza, the Great Depression, saw man walk on the moon and who are now ringing in their milestone birthday in a year marred by covid-19.

"The numbers have grown substantially and they are continuing to grow hugely and in unprecedented numbers," said Dr. Neil Resnick, chief of the UPMC Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology.

Today, there are about 90,000 centenarians in the country, the Census Bureau reported, an increase from about 72,000 centenarians in 2014 and 50,000 in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That growth is expected to continue, potentially reaching 589,000 people in the U.S. by 2060, a Statista graph shows.

Worldwide, the number of centenarians could grow to 3.6 million people by 2050, according to a 2016 Pew Research report.

That growth, Resnick said, is attributed to several factors, including a better understanding of risk factors like blood pressure, more effective treatments, improvements to hygiene and technology. And about 17% of people in the U.S. in 2016 had traits that increased their chances of living past 100, Reuters reported.

"Every year, we've learned more and more about aging and how to slow down the things that contribute to it," he said. "We don't really know about aging per se yet. The cause of aging itself is still under investigation. But what we've learned is ... the biggest thing that accelerates aging in normal humans are all these additional superimposed risk factors and diseases."

For Western Pennsylvania, numbers are expected to hover around 750 centenarians for the next 20 years, said Christopher Briem, regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies demographic trends. After that, it could once again increase.

Pennsylvania had about 2,500 centenarians in 2010, census data shows, and, at the time, made a list of the top 10 states with the largest centenarian population. Last year, there were 5,897 centenarians in the state, according to the Social Security Administration.

Still, areas like Westmoreland and Allegheny counties have large populations of older people. According to Pitt's Center for Social and Urban Research, 23.3%, or about 81,200 people, were over the age of 65 last year in Westmoreland County. In Allegheny County, 19.3%, or almost 235,280 people, were 65 or older.

"I'm sure, right now, we proportionally have more of all older age cohorts, but going forward the nation is going to see growth in all those age groups faster than locally," Briem said.

Who they are

A large contributor to the population growing older is an increasing average age, Resnick said. Up until the 1800s, only about 2% of the population lived to the age of 65. During the time, the average age hovered between 30 and 40, reaching 46 by 1900, Statista reported.

Over the next millennium, the average age jumped to 76 years old, Resnick said. By 2010, 0.19% of the population were centenarians, 6.5% were in their 90s, 33.6% were in their 80s and 59.6% were in their 70s. At that time, about 82% of the 52,000 centenarians were female, census data shows, and about 82% were white, with 12% being Black.

Today, the average age is 78, a Statista report shows, with about 10,000 people in the United States turning 65 per day.

"The things that help you get to 65 help us get to 100, also," Resnick said, noting that, if someone makes it to their 80s and 90s without disease, they are likely to make it to 100.

But, he said the risk of getting a disease increases after the age of 65, adding, "When you get one disease, it often tips off another disease."

According to the CDC, the top five causes of death among centenarians in 2014 were heart disease (34.6%), Alzheimer's disease (8.5%), stroke (6.1%), cancer (4.1%), and influenza and pneumonia (4%).

"Now that we've gotten a better handle on both the risk factors and the diseases, we've been able to allow just aging itself to be what remains," Resnick said. "And aging itself isn't so bad."

Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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