A lot of people ask me about the average age of residents in a retirement community. For continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs, or life plan communities), we know the average age at move-in is in the early 80s. Of course, this is an average. Newer communities normally have a younger average move-in age; older communities generally have an older one.

But I would advise against placing too much focus on the average age of a retirement community’s residents. Aside from the fact that this could be viewed as ageist, it is also overlooks some important considerations around what we can and can’t control about the aging process.

>> Related: The Invisible Senior: Confronting Ageism in the U.S.

Living longer

You see the news articles that come out each year about changes to life expectancy in the U.S. Generally speaking, the numbers have been inching upward, though the effects of the pandemic did cause a dip this past year.

For context, in 1900, the average life expectancy in the U.S. for a man was 46.3 years and 48.3 years for a woman. In 1919, those numbers had increased markedly with the average man living to be 53.5 and women living to 56.0. Fast-forward to 2019 when, according to the CDC, the average man reached 75.1 and the average woman lived to 80.5.

You might have assumed that this increase in lifespans over the past century is a result of medical advancements or some other environmental factor — or at least that’s what I had thought. But a new study reveals there is something else coming into play.

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The nature of aging

A group of international scientists set out to test the so-called “invariant rate of aging” hypothesis, which theorizes that each species has a relatively fixed rate of aging once they reach adulthood. The researchers analyzed humans’ and other primates’ birth and death data across the centuries and on different continents. What they discovered was that individual people (as well as other primates) today aren’t actually living longer, by and large. Instead, fewer people are dying young.

The data studied by the research team showed a consistent mortality pattern among all primates, including humans:

  • There is a high risk of death in infancy.
  • This risk rapidly declines in the adolescent and teenage years and remains low until early adulthood.
  • The risk of death then continually rises as the primate ages.

In short, in previous generations, life expectancy was lower because more people died at a young age — from birth defects, disease, childbirth, war, accidents, et cetera. That’s why, with innovations in medicine, societal advancements, and improvements to controllable environmental factors, humans’ lifespans have gone up.

But perhaps the most notable finding of this study was that our “trajectory towards death” as we reach mid- to late-adulthood is more or less unchanged over time, despite modern advancements.

“This suggests that biological, rather than environmental factors, ultimately control longevity,” explains researcher José Manuel Aburto from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science. “The statistics confirmed: Individuals live longer as health and living conditions improve, which leads to increasing longevity across an entire population. Nevertheless, a steep rise in death rates, as years advance into old age, is clear to see in all species.”

Put simply: Our species’ basic biology constrains our potential to live beyond a certain age.

>> Related: Are Preconceptions About Senior Living Communities Holding You Back?

Health and longevity at CCRCs

The bottom line of this study is that we are all growing older — nature makes this a reality beyond our control. However, there are environmental factors that we do control, which brings me back to my original point about the average age of CCRC residents.

To look purely at the age of people who have opted to move to a CCRC is only to consider part of the story. While the human species’ biology determines our maximum lifespan, everyone ages at a different pace based on a combination of their genetics and environmental factors like diet, exercise, and other lifestyle habits (e.g., smoking, drug use, etc.).

If you’re like me, you’ve met 85-year-olds who are as active as other 65-year-olds that you’ve known. This is particularly true at CCRCs where residents tend to be more active and generally healthier compared to their overall peer population. In fact, study after study has found that living in a retirement community, such as a CCRC, can actually help keep you healthy and active and thus potentially increase your number of good years.

I’m not suggesting that knowing the average age of residents in a community isn’t important. For one, it can impact the financial situation of a CCRC if it has a disproportionate number of older residents who may require more costly care services. But it’s important to keep in mind that there can be a wide range around the average age. And on top of that, a person’s chronological age doesn’t necessarily determine their level of vitality.

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