Question: I’ve heard that people who are more social live longer. Why is that?
Answer: Yes, many studies suggest that staying socially connected predicts greater life expectancy. Being social reduces stress and is helpful in getting care and support from others.
A growing number of Americans are living to age 100. Nationwide, the centenarian population has grown 65.8 percent over the past three decades, from 32,194 people who were age 100 or older in 1980 to 53,364 centenarians in 2010, according to new Census Bureau data. In contrast, the total population has increased 36.3 percent over the same time period.
Centenarians in the United States are considerably different from the overall population. Here’s a look at some of the characteristics of people who live to age 100:
It is overwhelmingly women who live to age 100. In 2010, 82.8 percent of centenarians were female. For every 100 females age 100 or older, there are only 20.7 males the same age. Females also make up 61.9 percent of those in their 80s and 72.2 percent of people in their 90s. “We know that women are more social than men. Other studies have found that staying socially connected predicts greater life expectancy,” says Gary Small, a professor on aging and director of the UCLA Longevity Center in Los Angeles, who is not affiliated with the Census Bureau report. “If you are social, it may reduce stress levels because you can talk about your feelings and things that stress you out and it seems to help many people. If you need a ride to the doctor or you fall, they can take you to the hospital or help you find the best doctor.”
Centenarians are considerably less diverse than the overall U.S. population. In 2010, some 82.5 percent of centenarians were white, versus 72.4 percent of the total population. Black or African Americans were unique in that their proportion of the centenarian population (12.2 percent) is about the same as their percentage of the total population (12.6 percent). Asians made up 2.5 percent of the centenarian population, while they make up 4.8 percent of the total population. And Hispanics represent 5.8 percent of centenarians, but 16.3 percent of the population.
Living With Others
Just over a third of both female and male centenarians lived alone in their own home in 2010, but the majority of the oldest citizens live with others. “As people get older, things in life happen—like you might become a widow or you might have a disability, and because of those circumstances, living arrangements often change,” says Amy Symens Smith, chief of the age and special populations branch at the Census Bureau. Centenarian females (35.2 percent) were more likely to live in a nursing home than males the same age (18.2 percent). Centenarian males are the most likely to be living with others in a household (43.5 percent), compared to just 28.5 percent of centenarian females.
A large majority of the oldest U.S. citizens live in urban areas. “As age increases, the percentage living in urban areas also increases,” says Smith. Some 85.7 percent of centenarians lived in urban areas in 2010, compared with 84.2 percent of those in their 90s, 81.5 percent of those in their 80s, and 76.6 percent of those in their 70s. “Living in the city, you have a lot more mental stimulation and the symphony and better doctors and hospitals and more social networking,” says Small. “There are more resources, and there is better transportation.”
Located in the Northeast or Midwest. States with the largest populations generally have the most centenarians. California has the largest number of centenarians (5,921), followed by New York (4,605), Florida (4,090), and Texas (2,917). Alaska has the fewest residents age 100 and older (40). Wyoming (72), Vermont (133), and Delaware (146) are also among the states with the fewest centenarians.
The Northeast and Midwest have proportions of centenarians that are higher than the national average of 1.73 per 10,000 people, while the West and South have below-average proportions of centenarians. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in local areas, including access to medical care, diet, exercise, the culture, risk-taking, and more smoking,” says Linda Waite, a sociology professor and director of the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago. “People in the Northeast tend to be more highly educated, and education is associated with a longer life expectancy.” North Dakota is the only state with more than 3 centenarians for every 10,000 people in the state. Other states where centenarians make up a relatively large portion of the population include South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska. Three western states have less than one centenarian for every 10,000 people: Alaska, Utah, and Nevada.
The proportion of centenarians in the United States is smaller than that of many other developed countries. For example, for every 10,000 people, there are 1.92 centenarians in Sweden, 1.95 in the United Kingdom, and 2.70 in France. And Japan has 3.43 centenarians per 10,000 people, beating even our longest-lived state, North Dakota.