Living to age 90 is a worthy goal Americans are increasingly meeting. The number of people age 90 and older almost tripled from 720,000 people in 1980 to 1.9 million in 2010, according to a new Census Bureau report. And the 90-plus population is expected to more than quadruple between 2010 and 2050. Here's a look at what life is like in the United States after age 90.
More women. Between 2006 and 2008, about three-quarters (74 percent) of the 90-and-older population were women. In 2006, life expectancy at age 65 was 19.7 years for women and 17 years for men. Women also experienced more rapid improvements in life expectancy than men between 1929 and 2006. Over the past eight decades, older women have added almost seven years to their life expectancy, or a 54 percent extension, compared with 5.3 years for men, a 45 percent extension. Among the age 90-and-older population, there are just 35 men for every 100 women. After age 95, there is approximately one man for every four women.
Married men and single women. Most women who make it to age 90 (84 percent) are widows. Only 6.3 percent of women in this age group are married. On the other hand, 43 percent of 90-something men are married and about half are widowers. "Women tend to marry older men. Traditionally, there is a four- to five-year age difference," says Wan He, a Census Bureau demographer and co-author of the report. "When they get to age 90-plus, older men are very difficult to find."
Living alone. Just over a third (37 percent) of people in their 90s live alone. About the same number of people (37 percent) live in a household with family members or unrelated individuals. A quarter of older adults (26 percent) live in institutionalized quarters, such as skilled-nursing facilities. White senior citizens were almost twice as likely to live alone as Asians and Hispanics. And women (40 percent) are more likely than men (30 percent) to live alone, while men (53 percent) live with relatives more often than women (32 percent). Unsurprisingly, an older person's likelihood of living in a nursing home increases sharply with age, growing from 20 percent at ages 90 to 94 to 38 percent at 100 or older.
Physical limitations. The vast majority (85 percent) of people age 90 and older report having one or more physical limitations, the Census Bureau found. "Disability is associated with aging, but it isn't as inevitable as people thought it would be," says Richard Suzman, director of the National Institute on Aging's behavioral and social research division, which supported the report. "There is a modest fraction of people who claim not to have any disabilities."
The most common limitations include difficulty handling errands alone, such as visiting a doctor's office or shopping (68 percent), difficulty getting around by walking or climbing stairs (66 percent), and difficulty dressing or bathing (46 percent). Some seniors also report cognitive difficulties (40 percent), and difficulty hearing (43 percent) and seeing (26 percent). There is "a lot of variation in healthy aging, with some facing the expected problems but others aging well," says Howard Friedman, a University of California—Riverside psychology professor and author of The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study, who is not affiliated with the Census Bureau study.
Low incomes. The annual median personal income for people age 90 and older between 2006 and 2008 was $14,760 (in 2008 inflation-adjusted dollars). Men had significantly higher incomes than women, $20,133 versus $13,580. Some 15 percent of the age 90-and-older population lives in poverty.
Reliance on Social Security. Almost all people age 90 and up (92 percent) receive Social Security income. Social Security makes up almost half (48 percent) of all income for people in this age range. Some 18 percent of 90-somethings also receive traditional pension income.
Universal health coverage. Practically everyone age 90 and older (99 percent) is covered by health insurance provided by Medicare, and 28 percent also received Medicaid benefits in 2008. About 40 percent of the 90-and-older population purchased additional private health insurance coverage from an insurance company. A quarter of these retirees are covered by health insurance provided by a previous employer or union.
Redefining old age. "Traditionally, the cutoff age for what is considered the 'oldest old' has been age 85," says He. But researchers are considering moving this definition back to age 90. "With a rapidly growing percentage of the older population projected to be 90 and above in 2050, this report provides data for the consideration of moving that yardstick up to 90," says Suzman. "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."