Living Past 90 in America is No Decade at the Beach

Nation's 90 and Over Population Soaring, Census Says

Older couple sharing glasses of wine
Elderly Portion of US Population Continues To Increase, Census Reports. Keith Getter/Getty Images

America's population of persons aged 90-and-older has almost tripled since 1980, reaching 1.9 million in 2010 and will continue to increase to more than 7.6 million over the next 40 years, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau. If you think government benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare are financially "strained" now, just wait.

In August 2011, the Centers for Disease Control reported that Americans are now living longer and dying less than ever before. As a result, people 90 and over now make up 4.7% of all people 65 and older, as compared with only 2.8% in 1980. By 2050, projects the Census Bureau, the 90 and over share will reach 10 percent.

"Traditionally, the cutoff age for what is considered the 'oldest old' has been age 85," said Census Bureau demographer Wan He in a press release, "but increasingly people are living longer and the older population itself is getting older. Given its rapid growth, the 90-and-older population merits a closer look."

The Threat to Social Security

A "closer look" to say the least. The great threat to the long-term survival of Social Security - the Baby Boomers -- drew their very first Social Security check on February 12, 2008. Over the next 20 years, more than 10,000 Americans a day will become eligible for Social Security benefits. Millions of these Boomers will retire, begin collecting monthly social security checks and go on Medicare.

For decades before the Baby Boomers, about 2.5 million babies a year were born in the United States. Starting in 1946, that figure jumped to 3.4 million. New births peaked from 1957 to 1961 with 4.3 million births a year. It was that spurt that produced the 76 million Baby Boomers.

In December 2011, the Census Bureau reported that the Baby Boomers had become the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. The inconvenient and unavoidable truth is that the longer Americans live, the faster the Social Security system runs out of money. That sad day, unless Congress changes the way Social Security works, is now estimated to come in 2042.

The minimum age to begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits is 62. Medicare coverage, which covers about 80 percent of basic healthcare, begins automatically at age 65. Persons who wait until age 67 to apply for Social Security currently receive about 30 percent higher benefits than those who retire at 62. It pays to wait.

90 Not Necessarily the New 60

According to findings in the Census' American Community Survey report, 90+ in the United States: 2006-2008, living well into one's 90s may not necessarily be a decade at the beach.
A majority of people 90 and over live alone or in nursing homes and reported having at least one physical or mental disability. In keeping with long-standing trends, more women than men are living into their 90s, but tend to have higher rates of widowhood, poverty, and disability than women in their eighties.

Older Americans' chances of requiring nursing home care also increase rapidly with advancing age. While only about 1% of people in their upper 60s and 3% in their upper 70s live in nursing homes, the proportion jumps to about 20% for those in their lower 90s, more than 30% for people in their upper 90s, and nearly 40% for persons 100 and over.

Sadly, old age and disability still go hand-in-hand. According to census data, 98.2% of all people in their 90s who lived in a nursing home had a disability and 80.8% of people in their 90s who did not live in a nursing home also had one or more disabilities. Overall, the proportion of people age 90 to 94 having disabilities is more than 13 percentage points higher than that of 85- to 89-year-olds.

The most common types of disabilities reported to the Census Bureau included difficulty doing errands alone and performing general mobility-related activities like walking or climbing stairs.

Money Over 90?

During 2006-2008, the inflation-adjusted median income of people 90 and over was $14,760, almost half (47.9%) of which came from Social Security. Income from retirement pension plans accounted for another 18.3% of income for persons in their 90s. Overall, 92.3% of people 90 and older received Social Security benefit income.

In 2206-2008, 14.5% of people 90 and older reported living in poverty, compared to only 9.6% of people 65-89 years old.

Almost all (99.5%) of all people 90 and older had health insurance coverage, mainly Medicare.

Far More Surviving Women Over 90 than Men

According to 90+ in the United States: 2006-2008, women surviving into their 90s outnumber men by a ratio of almost three to one. For every 100 women between ages 90 to 94, there were only 38 men. For every 100 women ages 95 to 99, the number of men dropped to 26, and for every 100 women 100 and older, only 24 men.

In 2006-2008, half of men 90 and older lived in a household with family members and/or unrelated individuals, less than one-third lived alone, and about 15 percent were in an institutionalized living arrangement such as a nursing home. In contrast, less than one-third of women in this age group lived in a household with family members and/or unrelated individuals, four in 10 lived alone, and another 25% were in institutionalized living arrangements.