So many Americans are living past 85 that it may push the designation of ‘oldest of the old’ from 85-plus to 90 and older, according to a Census Bureau report released Thursday.
By 2050, the United States is likely to have 9 million people 90 and older, the report projected. In 1980, only 720,000 Americans were around who had lived past their 90th birthdays. That number grew to 1.9 million last year.
“Can 90 be the new 85?" asked Dr. Richard Suzman of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health.
"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,” added Suzman, whose agency commissioned the report.
And they're not all on the verge of death. The average 90-year-old can expect to live another 4.6 years, and anyone who makes it to 100 can reasonably expect to squeeze out more than two more years of life.
The census data may be great news for those of us who want to live into our ninth decade. But it’s difficult news for policymakers, who are already grappling with the escalating costs of subsidizing health care for the nation’s elderly. A growing elderly population has put pressure on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and as more Americans live longer, the pressure is likely to increase.
The census report found that America’s oldest residents tend to be widowed white women who live alone or in a nursing home. Almost three-quarters of the population age 90 or older between 2006 and 2008 were women; 88 percent of those over 90 were white.
“Social Security provides almost half of their personal income, and almost all of them have health insurance coverage through Medicare and/or Medicaid,” the NIA statement noted. The annual median income for the demographic was $14,760, the report found.
An overwhelming majority of the oldest Americans reporting having some sort of disability, the report found, and about two-thirds said they have trouble with simple movements like walking or climbing stairs.
Keeping future generations of the oldest-old able to care for themselves will be a huge challenge. Just this week, researchers told the American Heart Association meeting in Orlando that by 2020, more than 80 percent of U.S. men and more than 70 percent of women will be overweight or obese, and more than half will either have full-blown diabetes or be well on the way to developing it.
"A key issue for this population will be whether disability rates can be reduced,” Suzman said.