Saunders: Counting the years in our life, or the life in our years?

I was reminded recently of some words from Psalm 39, attributed to David, about the brevity of life: “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you.” (New International Version NIV) The commentator wanted the reader not just to think about the brevity of life but also about the meaning and the value of the time given to us.

About the same time I was reading about centenarians and their mastery of living to 100 and beyond. In fact, I’ve known some centenarians, several who have lived to be 107, 106, 105, 103, respectively, as well as those who were happy to make it to 100! The trend in the United States is for more and more people to live to be 100 or better.

For example, in 2014, according to a report by Jiaquan Xu from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 72,197 Americans aged 100 or older. That number was up about 44 percent from 2000 when there were only 50,281centenarians in the United States. And the upward trend is continuing.

In early 2013, U.S. News & World Report staff writer Emily Brandon reported on the commonality of those living to be 100. First, she noted that overwhelmingly women live to age 100. In 2010, 82.8 percent of centenarians were female, while for every 100 females age 100 or older, there were only 20.7 males the same age. Such disparity was attributed to the fact that generally women are more social than men, and that staying socially connected predicts greater life expectancy, according to some studies.

Brandon also indicated that centenarians are considerably less diverse than the overall U.S. population. In 2010, some 82.5 percent of centenarians were white, versus 72.4 percent for the total white population. The African-American centenarian population of 12.2 percent was about the same as their 12.6 percentage of the total population.

Centenarians, according to Brandon, also tend to live with others either in nursing homes or in regular households. And many centenarians are located in the Northeast or Midwest which may have something to do with access to medical care, cultural and educational centers. Not surprisingly, Alaska has the fewest number of centenarians!

The figures for the world’s centenarian population and growth are even more startling. In 2016, Renee Stepler, a research analyst at the Pew Research Center, wrote that the world’s centenarian population is projected to grow eightfold by 2050, from 451,000 in 2015 to nearly 3.7 million across the globe. In 2015 the highest concentration of centenarians was found in just five countries — the U.S. (72,000), Japan (61,000), China (48,000), India (27,000), and Italy (25,000). The ordering of the countries changes when the number of centenarians are counted per 10,000 people; hence, in 2015, Japan had 4.8 per 10,000, followed by Italy with 4.1, the U.S. with 2.2, China with 0.3, and India with 0.2.

According to Stepler, by 2050, however, China is expected to have the largest centenarian population, with 620,000, followed by Japan (441,000), the U.S. (378,000), Italy (216,000) and India (207,000). The ordering of these five countries again changes when the numbers are looked at from the standpoint of the total populations. Thus, Japan and Italy will have the highest proportion of centenarians to the total population, followed by the U.S., China and India.

Perhaps as prime-ers we don’t need to be concerned about 2050 right now. But we might need to look at the recent trends in the rising number of centenarians to determine our response to an increasing life span and what it means mentally, physically, emotionally, economically, spiritually. According to CDC author Xu, quoted earlier, “People are more aware of their health, of the importance of staying active and eating healthy food” with improvements to overall health on the rise.

Among the list of items often touted for living a long life by researchers and those living to a great age are having an optimistic attitude, practicing good health habits, maintaining high levels of cognition, and having a strong social support system. These items certainly are logical and proven hallmarks of a long life. They also point to how to live a meaningful long life.

Researchers for The Legacy Project at Cornell University found, in interviewing long-lived prime-ers, that these older people recognize that life is short and therefore they, and in turn, we should learn how to live in the moment. Living in the moment is to make the most of the present by enjoying every moment we are given. And so we are back to the Psalmist David thinking not only about the brevity of life when compared to God’s time, but also about how to live meaningfully in the years we are given.

Hermine Saunders writes from Westminster. She can be contacted via email at hermines@verizon.net.

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