Elderly woman smiling

Centenarians and Better Health

When it comes to aging successfully and remaining in good health, are centenarians the perfect role models? Or is extreme age inextricably linked with increasing levels of illness? How often do diseases affect those who are in their 80s or 90s but don’t reach the 100-year mark?

Researchers from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin have been studying illness trajectories in centenarians during the final years of their lives.

According to their findings, people who died aged 100 or older suffered fewer diseases than those who died aged 90 to 99, or 80 to 89. The findings of this study have been published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences.

Forty years ago, life expectancy was such that, in the industrialized world, only (approximately) one in 10,000 people were expected to reach the age of 100 or more. Today’s estimates suggest that half of all children born in the developed world during this century will live to at least 100.

There is evidence to suggest that centenarians develop fewer diseases than younger cohorts of extreme old people – people in their 80s and 90s.

Using diagnoses and health care utilization data routinely collected by the German statutory health insurance company Knappschaft, the researchers studied relevant events during the final six years of life of approximately 1,400 of the oldest old. For the purposes of analysis, this cohort was then divided into three groups. Data on persons who had died aged 100 or older were compared with random samples of persons who had died in their eighties or nineties. “According to the data, centenarians suffered from an average of 3.3 such conditions during the three months prior to their deaths, compared with an average of 4.6 conditions for those who had died in their eighties,” said Dr. Paul Gellert of Charité’s Institute of Medical Sociology and Rehabilitation Science., summarizing the findings.

“Our results also show that the increase in conditions seen during the last few years of life was lower in centenarians than in those who had died between the ages of 90 and 99, or 80 and 89.”

If one includes disorders commonly associated with extreme old age, such as different types of dementia and musculoskeletal disorders, approximately half of all centenarians recorded a total of five or more comorbid conditions. The same number of comorbid conditions was found in 60 percent of persons who had died in their nineties and 66 percent of persons who had died in their eighties. While different types of dementia and heart failure were found to be more common among centenarians than among the younger cohorts, high blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmia, renal failure, and chronic diseases were less common in those who had died after reaching 100 years of age. The incidence of musculoskeletal disorders was found to be similar in all three age groups. While there appears to be a clear link between extreme old age and the number of diseases recorded, the extent to which this is the case requires careful analysis.