The common view is that once you hit 80, you're headed downhill fast, as inevitable natural aging processes kick in to bring life to an end. A study in the latest issue of Population and Development Review, however, suggests that longevity for those in their 80s and 90s may, in fact, be increasing significantly--a trend with major social and economic implications.
In the study, demographers Vainu Kannisto, Jens Lauritsen, A. Roger Thatcher, and James W. Vaupel analyzed mortality data for people in their 80s and 90s in developed countries. They found that death rates of the "old old" have been declining at an accelerating pace since the 1920s, but particularly in recent decades. In a sample of 19 countries, for example, average death rates for men and women in their 80s declined by 0.7% and 1.2% a year, respectively, from the 1960s to the 1970s, but by 1.2% and 1.9% annually in the 1980s. Indeed, in a number of nations the pace appears to have quickened even more through the early 1990s.
If such trends were to continue in coming decades, the 80-plus group in advanced countries, already the fastest- rising contingent among the elderly, would far exceed current projections.