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Polygamist Haven, Graying Maine Mark Extremes of an Aging U.S.

Aging in Maine
Rita Schwenk, with medication she received under the Medicare prescription drug benefit program on January 18, 2006 in Portland, Maine. Photographer: by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The U.S. population is getting older, and the oldest states are graying the fastest.

The median U.S. age climbed to a record 37.2 in 2010, and New England accounted for six of the 10 states with the highest numbers, Census Bureau data released today show. Maine, where half of all people are older than 42.7, topped the national list. Utah, with a median age of 29.2, was the youngest state.

The new census figures reflect a diverse population that’s aging and less likely to live in a traditional household. The number of single mothers grew three times faster than married couples, the ranks of those 85 and older surged, and nonwhites gained twice as much as whites. William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the U.S. is dividing into older white and younger minority spheres.

“There are geographic splits and generational splits,” Frey said. “We’re really pulling apart as a country.”

States that saw rapid growth during the decade, such as Arizona, Nevada and Texas, owed much of it to minority children, Frey said in a report last month. Ninety-five percent of Texas’s growth in child population consisted of Hispanics. The U.S. population of white children fell by 4.3 million, while Hispanic and Asian children grew by 5.5 million, the report said.

The median age, which increased from 35.3 in 2000, rose in every state, dropping only in the District of Columbia, where it fell to 33.8 from 34.6 in 2000, the 2010 Census shows.

Polygamist Town

The number of those over 65 grew 15.1 percent, compared with a 9.7 percent gain for the U.S. population.

Meanwhile, the youngest town is Colorado City in northwest Arizona, which was founded in 1913 as a haven for polygamists. Its 4,821 people have a median age of 12.6 -- younger even than Boys Town, Nebraska, where the median age is 16.7, or Kiryas Joel, New York, a predominantly Hasidic community about 60 miles north of New York City, where the median age is 13.2.

Among states, Maine overtook both West Virginia and Florida as the one with the highest median age. Much of the increase was driven by “senior seniors,” or people older than 85, and a decline in young people.

Len Kaye, director of the University of Maine’s Center on Aging, said the state has become a retirement destination, especially for former residents returning after having earlier left to get jobs.

“We do have cold winters,” Kaye said. “But it’s a relatively safe place to live, a less-costly place to live, and for some, it’s a return to a familiar place.”

Old New England

The other New England states in the top 10 for median age are Vermont, ranked second at 41.5; New Hampshire, 41.1; Connecticut, 40; Rhode Island, 39.4; and Massachusetts, 39.1.

Nationwide, the number of people older than 85 jumped 29.6 percent, the census figures show. One of every 40 people living in Rhode Island, North Dakota and Iowa are well into their ninth decade of life.

The oldest cities in the U.S. remain mostly in the Sunbelt states of Florida and Arizona. Penney Farms, a north Florida retirement community of 749 people founded by department store owner James C. Penney in 1926, boasted an average age of 80.7, the oldest in the nation.

More than half the town, designed for retired lay people, ministers, missionaries and other church workers, is taken up by the Penney Retirement Community.

Singles Outpace Couples

The number of single Americans grew faster than married couples over the decade, rising by 27.2 million, or 9.6 percent. The number of married Americans increased by 2 million, or just 3.5 percent.

The ranks of single mothers grew three times faster than married couples. Their numbers rose by 39.9 percent in Nevada, 30.8 percent Arizona and 28.7 percent in North Carolina. Single mother-led households fell by 3.7 percent in New York and 13.8 percent in the District of Columbia.

The percentage of married couples with children fell 5.3 percent from 2000, to 23.8 million. The decrease was sharpest in Vermont, where the numbers fell 19.1 percent. The increase was highest in Nevada, where the number of households with married couples with children rose 18.7 percent.

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