Brace for a tectonic demographic shift: the imminent and unprecedented aging of the United States of Graymerica.
By 2034, a little over a decade from now, the United States will have more seniors than youth for the first time in its history. By just a year later, those of us aged 85 and older will have nearly doubled, in a span of just 25 years, to almost 12 million. And by 2050, the population of centenarians — those who live to 100 or older — will swell to 3.7 million, more than everyone now living in Connecticut. Half of today’s 5-year-olds can expect to join their ranks, the Stanford Center on Longevity projects, pointing to continuing medical advances against killers such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
If we get this right, and that will involve heeding the dire warnings of a rapidly warming earth, we’ll face a future with the potential for more brightness than bleakness as we create and contribute ever longer into our lengthening lives. But there’s a big problem: The realm of super-aging is an overwhelmingly white space.
In the United States, only 2 in 10 centenarians are people of color. If that doesn’t bother you, it should. Black, brown, and Indigenous Americans are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to longevity.
Just think about that. Life is, at its essence, about love and lived experience; those things require time. White people get more time.
The average life expectancy for Black people in the United States in 2021, the most recent year for which figures are available, was 70.8 years. By contrast, white Americans could expect to live to 76.4. Nearly six years of existence separated the races.
That’s a lot of life. Think of 6-year-olds you have known: they’ve learned to read, write, and swim; have begun the first grade; and might be preparing to receive their First Communion. It’s an unthinkable longevity gap — a glaring inequity we must address.
Experts in demography and racial injustice say it’s a consequence of what’s known as “weathering theory” — the idea that the health of Black Americans begins to deteriorate in early adulthood as a physical consequence of socioeconomic disadvantages that add up and take a toll. It’s already evident at the beginning of life, when Black mothers — even wealthy ones — are twice as likely as their richest white counterparts to die of complications from childbirth. And scientists believe weathering is a factor that keeps a disproportionate number of Black and brown elders from reaching or exceeding 100.
Arline Geronimus, the University of Michigan public health and population researcher who coined the term “weathering,” has done pioneering work on the effects of poverty and structural racism on health and longevity. Black women in particular, Geronimus says, age faster and develop chronic diseases such as high blood pressure earlier simply because of the stress of living in a society that discriminates against them.
“Accelerated biological aging,” Geronimus calls it. It’s one of the primary reasons COVID-19 had such a disproportionate and devastating effect on communities of color, which tend to have higher incidences of hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. (COVID, of course, caused US life expectancy for everyone to tumble, but the longer-term trend lines point to significant life span gains.)
Even Black centenarians who beat the odds, such as 112-year-old Herlda Senhouse, must overcome the life-sapping effects of poverty and racism to achieve their astonishing ages.
Born in 1911, one of her childhood chores was to clean her family’s oil lamps before electricity reached their home in rural West Virginia. She vividly recalls curling up in bed with a hot iron to help ward off the chill in a house without indoor plumbing.
“I’ve had a journey I never thought I’d ever have,” Senhouse tells me at her apartment in Wellesley, where she’s lived for the past 40-plus years, her faculties intact and her eyesight so good she only needs glasses for distance, not reading.
She and her husband, who passed away three decades ago, provided domestic support for a wealthy family in Woburn, and the couple accompanied them when they vacationed in Florida. On one occasion, Senhouse wanted to buy a hat, but the shopkeeper wouldn’t let her try it on first. On another, she and her husband were hassled for sitting in a bus shelter reserved for white people.
Fast-forward to today’s grim and seemingly endless George Floyd era of routine and murderous police brutality against Black people, and she flashes a steely determination: “One day they’ll learn we’re here, and we’re not going anywhere, so they might as well live with us.”
Outliers such as Senhouse aside, figures from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lay bare just how harrowing the racial gap in health and longevity is: Black Americans ages 18 to 49 are twice as likely to die of heart disease than white Americans, and those ages 35 to 64 are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure.
How ironic that, in some gerontological circles, centenarians are referred to as “black swans” — a reference to Europeans’ 17th-century belief that the existence of such creatures was impossible. A hundred years later, when black swans turned up for real in western Australia, the term came to define rare and difficult-to-predict events beyond the realm of normal expectation.
In a sense, all centenarians, regardless of race and ethnicity, are black swans. But in the United States, people of color such as Senhouse who attain triple-digit ages truly personify the term, if only because of everything they’ve had to endure to get there.
How do we narrow the racial gap in longevity? There are no easy answers, but it’s going to take a functioning democracy that responds to the needs of all of its citizens by ensuring everyone is paid a living wage; gets equal access to quality health care; and has affordable and healthy alternatives to fast foods — a basic need that has eluded millions living in urban food deserts.
The Census Bureau projects that in 2045, just a little over two decades from now, the United States will become a “minority white” nation. White people will constitute 49.7 percent of the population; Hispanics, 24.6 percent; Black people, 13.1 percent; and Asians, 7.9 percent. People identifying as multiracial will make up the remaining 3.8 percent. Translation: More people of color with diminished life spans watching their white neighbors live appreciably longer. If we truly believe Black lives matter, we face a moral imperative to make sure they’re as long as possible.
William J. Kole is an award-winning journalist and author who grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Rhode Island. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, THE BIG 100: The New World of Super-Aging, to be published October 3 by Diversion Books. Copyright 2023 by William J. Kole. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.