First-ever census data on the 90-plus population highlight America's increasing life spans, which are redefining what it means to be old.
Joined by graying baby boomers, the oldest old are projected to increase from 1.9 million to 8.7 million by midcentury - making up 2 percent of the US population and one in 10 older Americans. That is a big change from more than a century ago, when fewer than 100,000 people reached 90.
Demographers attribute the increases mostly to better nutrition and advances in medical care. Still, the longer life spans present additional risks for disabilities and chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease.
Richard Suzman, director of behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging, which commissioned the report, said older seniors' worries about burdening their families are increasingly common. Personal savings for retirement can sometimes be a problem, he said, if people do not anticipate a longer life or some form of disability.
An Associated Press-LifeGoesStrong.com poll in June found that more than one in four adults expect to live to at least 90, including nearly half of those now 65 or older. A majority of adults also said they expected people in their generation to live longer than those in their parents' generation, with about 46 percent saying they expected a better quality of life in later years.
``A key issue for this population will be whether disability rates can be reduced,'' Suzman said. ``We've seen to some extent that disabilities can be reduced with lifestyle improvements, diet and exercise.''
According to the report, the share of people 90 to 94 who report having some kind of impairment such as inability to do errands, visit a doctor's office, climb stairs, or bathe is 13 percentage points higher than those 85 to 89 - 82 percent compared with 69 percent. Among those 95 and older, the disability rate climbs to 91 percent.
Census figures show that smaller states had the highest shares of their older Americans who were at least 90. North Dakota led the list, with about 7 percent of its 65-plus population older than 90. It was followed by Connecticut, Iowa, and South Dakota. In absolute numbers, California, Florida, and Texas led in the 90-plus population, each with more than 130,000.
Traditionally, the US Census Bureau has followed norms in breaking down age groups, such as under-18 to signify children or 65-plus to indicate seniors. Since the mid-1980s, the bureau often has released data on the 85-plus population, describing them as the ``oldest old'' - a term coined by Suzman.
But some of those norms, at least culturally, may be shifting. Young people 18 to 29 more than ever before are delaying transition to work in the poor job market by pursuing advanced degrees or moving in with parents. Older Americans, who are living longer and staying healthier than prior generations, are now more likely to work past 65.
The US Census Bureau said it was putting out its study of the 90-plus age group at NIA's request in recognition of longer life expectancies, which are just over 78 for babies now being born.
By the time a person reaches 65, Americans are generally expected to live close to 20 years longer, up from 12 years in 1930. At age 90, their expectancy is another five years. ``Given its rapid growth, the 90-and-older population merits a closer look,'' said Wan He, a Census Bureau demographer who wrote the report. ``The older people get, the more resources they consume because of health care, and disability rates significantly increase. This creates demands for daily care, and for families the care burden increases dramatically.''
Other findings in the census report included that among the 90-plus population, women outnumber men by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1, and that when broken down by race and ethnicity, non-Hispanic whites made up the vast majority of the 90-plus population, at 88.1 percent.
Source: The Boston Globe