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Live to 100: Number of centenarians has doubled

By Jen Christensen and Val Willingham CNN | 6/4/2014, 11:11 a.m.
It is Her Majesty's custom to send a personal greeting to her subjects on their 100th birthdays. These days the ...
Ann Nixon Cooper, 107, watched the inauguration from her Atlanta home with three grandsons and her caretaker. She said seeing a black man sworn in as president is one of the greatest moments of her life. I'm most excited about it -- just nothing but the greatest, she said. Obama had praised Cooper for her heroism during his victory speech in November. Photo by Tristan Smith/CNN.

It is Her Majesty's custom to send a personal greeting to her subjects on their 100th birthdays. These days the Queen of England has a lot more letters to write.

That's because a record number of people are living to 100 and beyond in the United Kingdom -- and worldwide. In fact, one-third of babies born in the UK in 2013 are expected to live to 100, according to their Office of National Statistics. In the United States, the population has seen similar trends.

As this centenarian population grows, scientists want a better understanding of how and why those people do eventually die.

A new study finds that these 100-plus types are more likely to have "old age" listed as their cause of death than chronic diseases, according to lead author Dr. Catherine Evans.

The study, published in the most recent edition of PLOS Medicine, finds that most centenarians die from pneumonia or general frailty rather than cancer or heart disease. Chronic diseases are more likely to kill people who only make it to their 80s and 90s.

To get at this information, Evans examined data from the death records of people in the United Kingdom who died between 2001 and 2010. She looked at a group of 35,867 people who were between 100 and 115 when they died. The median age of death was 101.

Evans said she was surprised at how large that 100-plus population is. It has nearly doubled every decade since the 1950s in the UK. Globally the 100-plus population is projected to grow to about 18 million people by the end of the century.

Looking at where these centenarians died showed that the majority ended their days in a care home (61 percent) or hospital (27 percent). They were less likely to die at home (10 percent) or in hospice care (0.2 percent).

Earlier studies show the elderly prefer to die at home, so the study authors argue that as this population grows there is an "urgent need to ensure adequate long-term care and responsive community care services to support people living with extreme longevity in these care settings."

Since the elderly are often frail, earlier studies have shown that "home" isn't necessarily about the brick and mortar where a person's family lived. Home, Evans suggests, may be more of a "metaphor for where you feel safe and secure, and where your loved ones are nearby."

While this study specifically looked at the British population, the number of centenarians has grown all around the world.

Dr. Ronald D. Adelman, who works with many of these old-old people as the medical director of Cornell's Wright Center on Aging, said that the study is an important tool to understand a population that's often overlooked.

"When it comes to the elderly there are really three groups we look at," explained Adelman. "Those who are considered old, who are 65 to 74 years of age; the older, between ages 75 to 84; and the old-old, which are those people over the age of 85.