Turn of the century mark - More Americans are living to be 100

Monday, October 22, 2001

T.J. Languell doesn't know why he's lived so long. But the 103-year-old Cape Girardeau man suspects hard work may have something to do with it.

He grew up in Ripley County and spent his working life drilling oil wells and constructing pipelines. "When I was growing up, everything was done by hand and there was nothing soft about that," he said.

These days, he's confined to a wheelchair at Chateau Girardeau. Strokes have weakened his legs. He uses a hearing aid. He tells visitors he misses playing baseball, something he did in his youth. Even more, he misses getting around on his own.

Languell, who was born on June 20, 1898, was one of 50,454 Americans last year who were 100 years old or older in the 2000 census. That was up about 13,000, or 35 percent, from a decade ago.

In Missouri, the number increased 24.5 percent, from 922 to 1,129. The state ranked 13th in the nation, the Census Bureau said.

Area numbers steady

But the increase isn't reflected in Cape Girardeau County and the surrounding area, where the number of centenarians has held steady for a decade. Gerontology and demographic experts aren't sure why.

In Cape Girardeau County, there were 13 centenarians last year, seven women and six men. According to the census, one of the men was 110 years of age or older.

Perry and Scott counties each had five centenarians. Bollinger County reported only one.

The numbers changed little from the 1990 census, when Cape Girardeau County had 14. The numbers in Perry, Scott and Bollinger counties are exactly the same as a decade ago.

Dr. Shelba Branscum, associate professor of human environmental studies at Southeast Missouri State University and a gerontology expert, questions the latest census figures. She believed the number of centenarians in this area should have increased.

State demographer Ryan Burson said he couldn't explain it either. But he said the small number of centenarians locally can make it more difficult to detect trends.

Still, he said he would expect the number of Southeast Missouri centenarians to climb in the coming years, mirroring the national and state trend.

A future challenge

Nationwide, centenarians are less than 1 percent of the total population. But the numbers are growing and that population group shouldn't be overlooked, gerontology experts say.

"It probably poses challenges for us in terms of providing health care in the future," said Dr. Robert Butler, president of the International Longevity Center in New York. Some census projections forecast there could be as many as 1 million centenarians by 2050 when the oldest baby boomers reach 100.

More people are breaking the century mark partly because of medical advances. But it's not just that, said Branscum, who directs Southeast's Hoover Center, which assists the elderly.

"We just take better care of ourselves," she said, with information about healthy lifestyles, exercise and nutrition.

There are more care options for today's senior citizens, everything from retirement communities to nursing homes and home health care.

The Hoover Center operates a day program that serves about 30 elderly residents each week. The center staff takes them shopping and also providing them with a hot lunch, presentations by various speakers and even offers exercise routines.

Participants at the Hoover Center are among the nation's growing elderly population.

The number of people age 90 to 94 increased 45 percent over the past decade to 1.1 million. The nation saw a 26 percent surge in the number of Americans in the 80 to 84 age group, which in the 2000 census totaled 4.9 million.

In the 16 counties of Southeast Missouri, the number of people 85 and older jumped 27.6 percent from 1990 to 2000, from 5,792 to 7,390.

Branscum said the numbers should be a wake-up call to a society that isn't prepared for the graying of America.

"Society is nowhere near ready," she said. "We have known for a long time that Baby Boomers were coming up the population grid."

But Branscum said businesses, colleges and society in general have yet to come to grips with the growing number of elderly.

"They have not even begun to address the kinds of issues and things that will be necessary to meet the needs of an older population," she said.

Many of the elderly aren't sitting at home in rocking chairs. Many are still independent. "Most of them are not in nursing homes," she said. "They are out doing things." Some have started second careers.

American genes

Nearly all Americans have genes that allow them to live well into their 80s, said Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Harvard Medical School.

While women still outnumber men at older ages, the gender ratio in the 65-and-over category increased from 67 men to 100 women in 1990 to a ratio of 70 to 100 in 2000.

But statistics mean little to Languell as he rocks back and forth in his wheelchair, patiently answering a reporter's questions about his life.

Languell said he used to smoke, but quit the habit 60 years ago.

Languell said he has seen a lot of new inventions. Everything from cars to airplanes and radio to television have been invented in his lifetime.

"My first car was a Model T Ford," he recalled. "The roads were terrible."

Even at 103, Languell still has an appetite for his favorite food, bacon and eggs.

"I've eaten it all my life," he said with a smile.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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