Cover Story

Twenty years ago, there were only 15,000 centenarians in the country. Today, there are 77,000, and by 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts there will be 834,000.

And psychologists are watching them. Wherever Americans are going in their quest for longevity, the nation's centenarians have gotten there first. "We are increasingly interested in the lives of these remarkable people," says Richard Suzman, PhD, associate director of the National Institute on Aging. Suzman hopes to discover "genetic, medical, social and behavioral factors that contribute to such longevity."

And who better to study than the people who have lived the longest?

"We want to see what influences longevity and adaptation in old age," says Leonard Poon, PhD, who heads a centenarian study at the University of Georgia.

By the way, some of the centenarians turned him down, he says, because they were too busy.

"We all have stereotypes of what a centenarian should be, but there's no such thing as a typical centenarian," Poon says.

Nevertheless, the study, started 12 years ago, has drawn up a portrait of a centenarian:

  • She is woman with a grade school education who lives by herself or with children.

She:

    • Has an annual income of $4,000 to $7,000.
    • Has vision or hearing problems.
    • Is feisty.
    • Is generally satisfied with life.

    --J. VOLZ