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Surprise of the Century : Oldest Segment of U.S. Society Is Also the Fastest-Growing

July 06, 1988|DAVID LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

They used to be curiosities.

The Social Security Administration would send field agents to interview them on their magic birthday. And anyone who reached age 100 was pretty much guaranteed a story in the local newspaper.

Guess what? It isn't news anymore. What is occurring instead is an emerging trend--the oldest portion of the population is now the fastest growing.

Consider this, from the U.S. Bureau of the Census:

- In 1980, the number of centenarians in the United States was about 15,000.

- By 1985, they numbered 25,000.

- By the turn of the century, fewer than a dozen years away, they are expected to number about 100,000.

Locally, such is the growth of this army that a unique nonprofit group has been founded in Burbank--the American Centenarian Committee--which, among other things, keeps under its wing 57 such residents in the Los Angeles area.

One of them, 103-year-old Percy Washington of Los Angeles, has it all figured out: "The only way to live is long!"

And, according to a special census report, the main place to do it in is California.

Bureau of the Census figures from the 1980 count, with later figures supplied by the Social Security Administration, show that no fewer than 2,155 centenarians live here. Other states with large numbers of centenarians include New York, 1,539; Texas, 1,324; Pennsylvania, 1,082 and Ohio, 953. The state with the second lowest total of centenarians was Nevada, 19. The fewest number of them--9--live in Alaska.

"For those born in 1879, the odds against living 100 years were 400-to-1," the census report added. "The odds of people born in 1980 . . . are 87-to-1.

"Such large improvements suggest that the elderly population is itself aging."

So the age-old question--what's the common thread?--now takes on new meaning.

One thing is clear: Until this decade, there weren't that many centenarians, so there has been little formal study of them as a group.

In Lexington, Ky., Lisa Burgess, a research assistant at the Sanders-Brown Research Center on Aging, has been part of an ongoing study under way in conjunction with the University of Kentucky Medical Center. Since last September, she said by phone, the mission has been: "To find out, in part, what makes centenarians tick."

Of the 30 she has interviewed so far in Kentucky, she has reached this conclusion: "With most of them, it is a matter of keeping busy."

More clues can be gleaned from the Social Security Administration practice from 1963 to 1972 of visiting every person who turned 100. Over the years, those 1,127 Social Security interviews became dusty bureaucratic esoterica, until an enterprising author, Osborn Segerberg Jr., went to great lengths to track down the by-then elusive volumes, added obituaries and interviews of his own, until he had 1,200 centenarians on which to base some conclusions.

"Living to Be 100" (Charles Scribner's Sons: 1982) sheds as much light as anything on these remarkable people.

'No Scientific Formula'

"Each one is a pioneer, an experimenter, in an area that science does not fully comprehend," Segerberg wrote. "There is no scientific formula for living 100 years. Instead, each centenarian had to make individual decisions and find personal solutions while advancing through the maze of living."

Dr. Richard Suzman is a health science administrator with the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md., whose group contracted for the Bureau of the Census special report.

"In the past, a likely limit for human life expectancy was 85," he said. "But I was recently at a UC Berkeley conference on aging, and most of the people there felt that the limit will be exceeded in the intermediate future.

"Some of the delegates felt that right now people could theoretically be living live much longer than they do."

In all too many cases, however, those who do live on "not only outlive their spouses, they outlive their assets," Suzman pointed out.

"Poverty rates are much higher in the oldest old, not only because of outliving their assets, but because they started retirement with lower levels of assets and pensions. In fact, very few have private pensions."

"The trouble is that our society simply doesn't know what to do about the very old," Vern L. Bengtson, director of the USC Gerontology Research Center, said. "They are still regarded as an aberration."

The idea for the American Centenarian Committee was born at a convalescent home birthday party for three who had made it.

Sharing a glass of fortified milk with Percy Washington, committee co-founder Raphael O. Cordero II lent an ear as the centenarian in a wheelchair, dressed as if he had just been to a power lunch, regaled still another audience in his room at the Sparr Convalescent Hospital here with tales of yesteryear, of yestercentury:

"I used to raise cotton by working a plow pulled by a mule. During Prohibition, we would mix shoe polish with water and drink it like alcohol. Tasted worse than turpentine. And we would smoke horse hair and corn silk."

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