Centenarians have become the fastest-growing demographic in Australia, creating a new boom generation of sprightly golden oldies.
At last count, 3154 Australians are currently aged 100 or older, with one-third of them from New South Wales.
But the latest forecasts estimate this will spiral to 12,000 by 2020 and 50,000 by 2050, according to new research published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
This will also mean more “super-centenarians” aged 110 or older, as well as more “semi-super-centenarians”, from 105 to 109.
Shattering the stereotype of immobile elderly people, more than half of the centenarians live in their own homes rather than in care homes.
Women are far more likely to reach 100, accounting for 75 per cent of the total, but male centenarians tend to be healthier, more independent and are far less likely to suffer from Alzehimer’s or dementia.
The study, by Professor Robyn Richmond, a NSW University public health expert, found Australia has one of the highest proportion of centenarians.
Japan, with more than 30,000 centenarians, has traditionally been associated with longevity but, according to Prof Richmond’s study, only Norway, Sardinia (Italy) and the US have a similar rate of over-100s to Australia.
Professor Richmond attributed the rising longevity to improved survival from diseases and improving health and lifestyles for the elderly.
“Many Australians are unaware of how many centenarians there are and how little we know about them,” she said. “It is amazing that these extremely enduring old people, whose lives carry a wealth of history, are living among us – and yet we appear to have largely ignored their effect on our society.”
She called for targeted government policies to address the social, medical and financial impact of living to 100 years and beyond.
“The consequences of the demographic transition need investigation by health policy-makers and economists,” she said.
“We need a better understanding of changes in disability prevalence, in order to make estimates of the likely short- and long-term cost implications.”
Declining fertility rates, with low population growth in younger age groups, also helped make centenarians the fastest-growing group.
Over 25 years, centenarian numbers have grown by 8.5 per cent a year.
In comparison, the number of children has grown by a meagre 0.3 per cent. Even the elderly population, aged between 80 and 99, has risen by only 4.9 per cent over the same period, the report showed.