The latest report from the Centers for Disease Control on life expectancy in the U.S. came out recently, and for the first time since 1993, the overall life expectancy for people in the United States decreased. According to the data from 2015, the average American will live to be 78.8 years old, down from 78.9 years in 2014 (that’s the equivalent of about 5 weeks). UPDATE: As of 2023 life expectancy has dipped even further, and now sits at an average of 76.4.

The lifespan stats for CCRCs

The news of this report made me think about the quality and quantity of life offered by continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs, also known as life plan communities). It is not uncommon to hear the marketing talking points, “People who live in CCRCs live longer.” In fact, I came across information on a community’s website recently that says, “Research tells us that seniors who choose to move into retirement communities or CCRCs are living longer because of the ability to interact and socialize with other residents.” Another one I found says, “Did you know? People who choose CCRCs tend to live longer, healthier lives?” When I see things like this, my first instinct is to want to learn more about the research behind these statements. When and how was this research performed? How many CCRCs and residents were studied?

So I decided to try to find the research behind this popular statistic. Much to my surprise, I was able to find very little. The “research” most often referenced is actually a paper written by an intern for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services almost 20 years ago. In section three of this report, the author, Jacquelyn Sanders, states, “The information within this section relies heavily on the findings of William Scanlon and Bruce Layton in the United State GAO Report to Congressional Requesters. Statistics show that CCRC residents have a life-expectancy which is 1.5 to 2 years longer than other elderly individuals.”

But here’s what really surprised me. The report by Scanlon and Layton that Sanders references doesn’t actually say anything about residents of CCRCs living 1.5 to 2 years longer. It does describe how services provided by CCRCs lead to healthy lifestyles and decreased risk of disease and injury, but nowhere does it say that residents live longer by any specific number of years. Naturally, one would think that healthier lifestyles and decreased risk of disease and injury would translate into longer life expectancies. But where did Jacquelyn Sanders get that figure? Did representatives of individual CCRCs simply tell her that that had been the experience of their residents, on average? Or is there industry-wide research supporting this that I haven’t been able to find?

>> Related: Can a Move to a Retirement Community Make You Healthier?

CCRC residents are healthier to begin with

Despite the fact that I have not been able to find a study with clear industry-wide evidence of residents in CCRCs living longer, I do not doubt this to be the case. I would even say it is highly likely, and maybe by more than 1.5 to 2 years. But here’s the bigger question: If residents of CCRCs are living 1.5 to 2 years longer, is it the result of the activities, social events, and healthcare offered by the community? Or, could it be the result of a “selection” process that requires new CCRC residents be able to “walk” into the community (meaning, they must be able-bodied and healthy enough to live independently when they first move into the facility)? In other words, the sample population at CCRCs is likely healthier to begin with as compared to the overall senor population, so wouldn’t it make sense that they would, on average, live longer?

I suspect that if research did back up the claim about longer life expectancies at CCRCs the reason for this would likely be the result of a combination of both– the services offered and a healthier overall population to begin with.

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Another look at lifespans of CCRC residents

Given the lack of in-depth research backing this claim, I would love to see more current research conducted on the topic of lifespans in CCRCs compared to the general population of seniors in our country. Further studies are needed to drill down and examine the actual reasons why your choice of senior living environment may impact the length of your life. Is it selection, wellness, or some combination of both?

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