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
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
"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
Centenarian Study at Harvard Medical School and author of a new
"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
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
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
"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