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Is 90 the new 85?

NIH-commissioned Census Bureau report describes oldest Americans

In 1980, there were 720,000 people aged 90 and older in the United States. In 2010, there were 1.9 million people aged 90 and older; by 2050, the ranks of people 90 and older may reach 9 million, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau, commissioned by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health.

The report describes this rapidly growing segment of the population which suggests that the designation of oldest-old should be changed from 85 to 90 years. The report, 90+ in the United States: 2006–2008, details the demographic, health and economic status of America's oldest adults.

"With the aging boom it is critical to develop demographic data providing as detailed a picture as possible of our oldest population," said NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. "The information on a variety of factors — income, health status, disabilities and living arrangements — will be particularly useful to researchers, planners and policymakers."

Based on the American Community Survey, the 27-page report describes in detail this rapidly growing population and states that a majority of the 90-plus population are widowed white women who live alone or in a nursing home. Most of them are high school graduates. Social Security provides almost half of their personal income, and almost all of them have health insurance coverage through Medicare and/or Medicaid. The vast majority say they have one or more types of disability.

The report says:

  • An average person who has lived to 90 years of age has a life expectancy today of 4.6 more years (versus 3.2 years in 1929–1931), while those who pass the century mark are projected to live another 2.3 years.
  • The majority (84.7 percent) of those 90 years and older reported having one or more limitations in physical function. Some 66 percent had difficulty in mobility-related activities such as walking or climbing stairs.
  • An older person’s likelihood of living in a nursing home increases sharply with age. About 1 percent of what are called the young elderly (aged 65–69) live in a nursing home. The proportion rises to 3 percent for ages 75–79, 11.2 percent for ages 85–89, 19.8 percent at ages 90–94, 31.0 percent at ages 95–99 and up to 38.2 percent among centenarians.
  • Women aged 90 years and older outnumber men nearly 3 to 1; 74.1 percent of the total population aged 90 and older in 2006–2008 were women.
  • Whites represent 88.1 percent of the total 90-and-older population. Blacks make up 7.6 percent, Hispanics 4 percent and Asians 2.2 percent.
  • The annual median income for people 90 and older was $14,760. Men had a higher income than women: $20,133 vs. $13,580. Social Security represents 47.9 percent of total personal income.

"Because of increasing numbers of older people and increases in life expectancy at older ages, the oldest segments of the older population are growing the fastest," said Richard Suzman, Ph.D., director of NIA’s Division of Behavioral and Social Research, which supported the report. "A key issue for this population will be whether disability rates can be reduced.

"Previous seminal work on demography designated age 85 as the cutoff for what we termed the oldest-old," Suzman added. "With a rapidly growing percentage of the older population projected to be 90 and above in 2050, this report provides data for the consideration of moving that yardstick up to 90. Can 90 be the new 85?"

90+ in the United States: 2006–2008 was written by Wan He and Mark N. Muenchrath, both of the U.S. Census Bureau. Copies of the report are available at www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/acs-17.pdf.

The NIA leads the federal government effort conducting and supporting research on aging and the health and well-being of older people. The Institute's broad scientific program seeks to understand the nature of aging and to extend the healthy, active years of life. For more information on research, aging, and health, go to www.nia.nih.gov.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

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