Aging Americans are living much longer

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

P The number of older Americans is growng, thanks to the Baby Boomers. Many older Americans are staying active too.

The number of Americans over age 100 is up 35 percent nationally and 24.5 percent in Missouri. This is, no doubt, serious evidence that this country's outstanding medical care and attention to a healthy lifestyle pays off in enviable dividends.

According to the 2000 census, Cape Girardeau County has 13 of the nation's 50,454 centenarians. Perry and Scott counties have five each, and Bollinger County has one. Some experts, including Dr. Shelba Branscum, associate professor of human environmental studies at Southeast Missouri State University and a gerontology expert, thinks Cape Girardeau County could have been shorted in the count. The number here dropped one from the 1990 census.

But we gained in the over-65 set, a trend we can expect through the foreseeable future. Some estimates say there could be as many as 1 million centenarians in 2050 because of the 1950s baby boom. Baby Boomers are more likely to exercise, eat nutritious foods and take care of themselves overall than their parents were.

While news of living longer is encouraging, there are concerns as well. Dr. Robert Butler, president of the International Longevity Center in New York, points out the growth will tax future health care. And Branscum agrees that businesses and society in general haven't come to terms with what the numbers will mean.

Of course, some won't be looking for a good nursing home anytime soon. Take Corona Harper, who turned 91 this week and is one of the most dependable substitute teachers in the Cape Girardeau School District.

She has been teaching children for 61 years and still drives herself to school. These days, she helps learning disabled children at Jefferson Elementary School.

Every year, she says she's not coming back. But when the district calls, she answers.

It's not surprising, considering her love for children and remarkable life.

Harper and her late husband never had children -- she considered her students to be her kids. She obtained her master's degree in education from Southern Illinois University. She took courses at Columbia University in New York to stay abreast of developments in her field.

No doubt she will continue to be an inspiration to us all as we grow older. If we have any luck, we will be half as productive as she is at her age.

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