Feature Archive

Living Well to 100

Find out why the number of centenarians is on the rise.

By John Cutter
WebMD Feature

Is a person "old" at age 67? Yes, according to a survey of American adults earlier this year made by AARP, the nation's largest advocacy group for older persons.

But what if the typical senior still had 30 years of good physical and mental health left at that age?

For a small but growing number of people, that question is more than hypothetical. The number of centenarians -- people who are 100 years or older -- in the United States has grown 60% since 1990, to about 61,000 people, and will continue to increase in coming decades, according to the Census Bureau. In another 10 years, the number will more than double to over 130,000 people, and it's expected to double yet again to 274,000 in 2025.

Illness Not Always Typical

"Research on centenarians is challenging myths about aging, such as that the older you get, the sicker you have to be," says Thomas Perls, MD, a geriatrician and director of the New England Centenarian Study at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Perls and others who are studying the lives of centenarians have found that many have avoided the common chronic illnesses and diseases associated with old age, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer's disease.