By Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
The rapid growth in the number of centenarians in the United States - roughly a doubling every decade - is forcing society to reexamine what it believes about aging.
Researchers are already documenting that advancing years - even after 100 - can be more productive and independent than previously believed.
Their findings suggest potentially huge changes ahead: *Retiring at 65 may be too young for tomorrow's elderly. *Increasing health and longer productivity of the elderly may offset somewhat the economic burden that planners have long assumed for a graying America. *Society's dismal view of old age may get a radical push toward the positive. "We want to show aging is a light at the end of a tunnel rather than some kind of abyss," says Tom Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Harvard Medical School and author of a new book, "Living to 100." "Decades of research clearly debunk the myth that to be old in America is to be sick and frail," write John Rowe and Robert Kahn in their 1998 book "Successful Aging." "Our main message is that we can have a dramatic impact on our own success or failure in aging." Some practitioners go much further than this. They predict medical breakthroughs will allow people to achieve a quasi-immortality by the middle of the next century. "When I talk about immortality, I'm not talking about living forever," says Ronald Klatz, a medical futurist and president of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine in Chicago. "I am talking about life spans of 200, 250 years and more." Such predictions are beginning to gain currency in the medical community as researchers discover genes that dramatically lengthen the life of some fruit flies and material called telomerase that increases the life spans of human cells. But many mainstream gerontologists caution against forecasts of a human longevity boom, calling them wild guesses. Even without dramatic breakthroughs in life expectancy (which in the US stands at just over 76), many people can lengthen their productive years significantly, these researchers say. By focusing on the healthy elderly - rather than the diseases of aging - they hope to unlock the secrets of a good long life. The growing ranks of centenarians give them an important database for study. The US Census Bureau estimates some 66,000 Americans have crossed the century mark - nearly double the 37,306 it counted in 1990 and 15 times the number in 1950. By the middle of the next century, the US could have 834,000 centenarians, according to the Census Bureau's middle-of-the-road projection. The Census Bureau admits the true numbers of centenarians may be lower - perhaps closer to 50,000 today - because of persistent problems getting an accurate count. Still, the numbers reflect dramatic growth. "Centenarians will become much less unusual and much more commonplace," predicts Kenneth Manton, director of the Center for Demographic Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C. It's entirely conceivable someone will reach 130 in the next few decades, he adds, handily beating the official record currently held by Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who passed away two years ago at 122. Debunking myths of aging Scientific findings are already breaking down myths about the elderly. For instance: * Old means sick. This theory is losing favor, according to the authors of "Successful Aging." Drawing on research from a MacArthur Foundation study on aging, and other sources, they found that a substantial majority of Americans into their mid-80s reported no disability. …