Growing Number of Centenarians to Challenge Cultural Roles
Fontaine, Tom, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Nic Mari, a third-grader at Moon's Hyde Elementary, looks forward to turning 100 someday.
"It would be awesome because you get to sleep more and you get to have Jell-O," said Nic, 8, who thinks old age starts at 44.
But fellow Hyde pupil Anthony Cap, 8, isn't eager to hit the century mark. Centenarians, he says, "can't run fast."
The youngsters have at least a 1 in 2 chance of reaching 100, according to a report in the British medical journal The Lancet. The October report, "Aging Populations: The Challenges Ahead," said more than half of all children born this decade in the United States and other developed nations will become centenarians.
About half of the Moon third-graders polled were thrilled by the prospect, often for reasons as simple as bottomless bowls of Jell-O or being old enough to get on all the rides at Kennywood. Others said they wanted to meet future generations and see world-changing advances to come. The other half, however, expressed concerns about wrinkles, limited mobility and being on death's doorstep.
"I think it would be cool to be 100, besides the fact that your life is almost over," said Erica Shorak, 8, of Hyde Elementary.
Fred Feldman, a Monessen native who lives in Pittsburgh's Southwestern Veterans Center, doesn't have any complaints about being a centenarian, despite relying on a wheelchair to get around and being hard of hearing.
"I like being 100. Every new day is wonderful. I want to continue to be alive and have more birthdays," said Feldman, who turned 100 on Nov. 13.
Can society handle it?
Aside from predicting that huge numbers of Americans will live into their 100s, the Lancet report says people should be able to live longer without severe disabilities or day-to-day limitations.
That's a finding that doesn't surprise experts on aging and doctors. But it's unclear how society might deal with larger numbers of the oldest old.
"What we find as solutions for dealing with the aging baby-boom population in the coming decades will probably become the status quo moving forward for years to come," said Dr. Alfred L. Fisher, assistant professor in geriatric medicine at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine.
Just 0.03 percent of U.S. children born in 1900 lived to be 100. The average life expectancy then was 47.3 years, and 13 percent of babies didn't survive their first year.
Life expectancy hit 77.9 years in 2007, up 1.1 years from the start of the decade, according to federal data. More than 99.3 percent of U.S. babies survive their first year, ranking 30th in the world, the National Center for Health Statistics said this month.
The oldest age expected to be reached by at least half of all children born in a particular year has risen even more rapidly than life expectancy, from 101 for children born in 2000 to 104 for ones born in 2007, the Lancet report said.
"Continued progress in the longest-living populations suggests that we are not close to a limit" for age, the report said.
But there might be a limit on what society, and its health and social systems in particular, can handle.
Today, there are roughly 100,000 centenarians in the United States, federal data show. If the Lancet study is right, more than 20 times as many future centenarians have been born each year this decade -- presuming at least half of the 4 million-plus children born each year will live into their 100s, as the study predicts. …