We’re living longer, healthier lives. (Photo: Stocksy)
New data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday has good news for the general population: We’re living longer.
According to the findings, the number of centenarians (i.e. people aged 100 and older) has jumped up by a whopping 44 percent since 2000. As of 2014, there were 72,197 centenarians — a hefty increase from the 50,281 in 2000.
Those numbers seem to be on an upward trajectory: In 1980, there were only about 15,000 centenarians.
Heart disease was the leading cause of death for centenarians, followed by Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, cancer, influenza, and pneumonia. Alzheimer’s disease shot up the list: In 2000, it was one of the lesser causes of death for people in this age group.
Lipi Roy, MD, MPH, an internal medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital tells Yahoo Health that she’s not shocked by the findings. “The data have shown that Americans are living longer,” she says.
Why the sudden increase? Roy says there are likely several factors. “Overall, there have been advances in treatment for heart disease and stroke, which are leading causes of death for this population,” she says.
Lifestyle trends may also be a factor. “People are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of eating healthier meals, exercising regularly, and the harms of smoking,” says Roy. We’ve also recognized that stress is related to chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease, she says, and are actively trying to reduce it.
James Kirkland, MD, PhD, director of the Mayo Clinic Robert and Arlene Kogod Center of Aging tells Yahoo Health that some of the reason that this age group is growing so much is that more people were able to overcome health hurdles at an early age. “These people were born in the early 1900s, and around then childhood mortality rates started going down a lot, due to the introduction of wastewater and sewage systems,” he says. “This possibly allowed a number of people who were destined to live to 100, but died of diarrhea because of bad water, to make it through childhood.”
Genes also likely play a role. “There’s a strong genetic component to this,” says Kirkland, adding that if you have people in your family who lived past 100, the odds are greater that you will do the same. However, since genes don’t change over time, he says there’s clearly more to it.
Kevin Hopkins, MD, medical director of the department of family medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, tells Yahoo Health that preventative care may also play a large role in this. “There’s been much more emphasis placed on preventative care health and wellness, particularly in the last 10 to 15 years,” he says. “We’re shifting from a model of episodic care, where you come in when you’re sick and don’t come back again until you’re sick, to one of population health management where I’m responsible for working with patients to get healthy and stay healthy.”
What about the increase in Alzheimer’s disease? Kirkland says it’s likely due to the fact that we’re getting better at treating other age-related diseases like cancer. “If you cure or alleviate one age-related disease, others will pop up and take over soon after,” he says. “It’s like a whack-a-mole — you’re going to die of something else.”
Centenarians are an age group that’s largely dominated by women, which Morton Tavel, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Health isn’t shocking. “This is simply an extension of greater overall longevity of this gender,” he says.
While the increase in the number of people in this age group is significant, experts expect it will continue to grow. Roy says the latest data emphasizes how crucial it is to focus on your health. “Go see your doctor once a year and take care of your overall health — that’s overall lifestyle, having a good support group, eating well, and exercising regularly,” she says. “It’s important.”