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The Graying of America

Number of octogenarians jumps in last decade

WEDNESDAY, May 16 (HealthScout) -- We're living longer, says the U.S. Census Bureau.

The number of Americans over age 85 jumped 38 percent from 1990 to 2000, the census reveals. And the median age of the U.S. population in 2000 was 35.3 years, the highest ever.

"Yes, we're living longer and getting older. Both statements are true, and both of these trends have been going on for awhile," says Campbell Gibson, a demographic advisor in the Census Bureau's population division in Suitland, Md. "There's been more rapid growth in the 65-and-over category over the past decade and in the previous decade, as well."

In 1990, about 1.2 percent of the total population, or 3,080,165 Americans, was 85 or over. By the end of the decade, 1.5 percent of the total U.S. population, or 4,329, 587 Americans, was 85 or over.

"Nationally, the median age dropped from 1950 to 1970, and that reflects the impact of the baby boomer generation. But ever since 1970, the median age has gone up reasonably rapidly," Gibson says.

The number of Americans 85 and over "is the cumulative effect of mortality improvement as well as the increase in the average life expectancy in this country," Gibson says.

"We've continued to see an increase in life expectancy throughout the century," he says. The latest data (1998) from the National Institutes of Health shows that since 1990, the average life expectancy has increased from 78.8 years to 79.5 years for females and from 71.8 years to 73.8 years for males. "Interestingly, male mortality improved more rapidly than female," Gibson says.

"Females still have a higher life expectancy, but males are continuing to improve," Gibson says.

The findings were released yesterday by the Commerce Department's Census Bureau in a Census 2000 Profile.

Credit advances in nutrition and healthcare for the improvement in life span, says the AARP, formerly known as the American Association for Retired People.

"It's not a function of the birthrate 85 years ago," says John Rother, director of Legislation and Public Policy with the AARP in Washington, D.C. "I think it's three things: a generally rising standard of living, important advances when these people were younger in nutrition and public health, and the third is they can now be shown to have benefited from state-of-the-art healthcare."

Rother says the nightmare used to be that "we would keep people living longer only to have them spend their later years in nursing homes. But that is not what's happening. It's much better than we could have hoped for 10 years ago."

There's less disability in old age, Rother says. "We are living longer with good years, and more and more people are living with functional independence into their very old age."

But the lifestyle is mostly quiet, Rother says. "There are some pretty prominent exceptions. There are a couple of U.S. senators who are still very active, and there's Granny D, who in her 90s walked across the country last year, campaigning for campaign finance reform."

"Of course, a lot of people are having a hard time. A lot of people are struck with dementia. Alzheimer's is still quite prevalent in about one-third of that population," Rother says.

"We're doing better, but it's still quite a challenge," he says.

What To Do

To learn more about the population, visit the U.S. Census Bureau. And for information on living longer and more productively, see the National Institute on Aging.

And read these HealthScout stories on aging.

SOURCES: Interviews with Campbell Gibson, demographic advisor, Census Bureau's population division, Suitland, Md., and John Rother, director of Legislation and Public Policy, AARP, Washington, D.C.; May 15, 2001, Census 2000 Profile
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