The Georgia Centenarian Study

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The Georgia Centenarian Study is a study of longevity and survival of the oldest old that took place from 1988 to 2009. 

Why do we want to study centenarians?

An introduction to the Georgia Centenarian Study

Perhaps the most compelling reasons are found in the October 1999 draft of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) Draft Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2001-2005. This document pointed to the remarkable growth of the older population which poses both opportunities and challenges. One of these opportunities is that unprecedented number of elders in the coming decades will face the risks of disease, frailty, and dependence. The population at the highest risk is the oldest of the old who are increasing at the fastest rate among those who are 65 years and older (Jeune, 1995; Kannistof, Lauritsen, Thatcher, & Vaupel, 1994; Vaupel et al., 1998).

Centenarians by definitions are survivors who have lived to at least 100, which is more than 20 years longer than the average life span. Contrary to the general picture of a frail individual at the end of life, we have found that 20 to 25% of centenarians are community-dwelling, cognitively intact, and generally vibrant and full of life (Poon, Clayton, Martin, Johnson, Courtenay, Sweaney, Merriam, Pless, & Thielman, 1992). On the other hand, at least 50% of the centenarians have some form of dementia. As expected, 60 to 70% have a disability and most are completely dependent (Franke, 1977, 1985, 1987) (Hagberg, Poon, & Homma, 2001). At the extreme longevity of the human species, centenarians represent the ultimate range of independence and dependence, frailty and strength. The challenge is that there is much to be learned from centenarians about survival, disease, frailty, and independence to promote health and independence for all who hope to maintain a successful quality of life in older adulthood.

A fundamental challenge is to understand how centenarians live longer and what specific biological, psychological, and sociological characteristics they possess that would allow them to survive longer (Lehr, 1991; Poon, Bramlett, Holtsberg, Johnson, & Martin, 1997). Another basic challenge is whether we could generalize the knowledge gained in our volumes of aging research to individuals of average life span to individuals who live 20 to 30 years longer (Rowe & Kahn, 1998). While studies of centenarians and the oldest old remain a rarity within gerontological research, interest in this area has increased steadily over the past 20 years (Vaupel et al., 1998; Lehr, 1991; Poon et al., 1997). Recently completed studies conducted in the United States (e.g. Poon et al., 1992; Perls, 1997), Japan (e.g. Chan, Suzuki, & Yamamoto, 1997), Italy (e.g. Capurso et al., 1997), Hungary (e.g. Regius, Beregi, & Klinger, 1994), France (e.g. Allard et al., 1994), Sweden (e.g. Samuelsson et al., 1997), Finland and Denmark (e.g. Jeune, 1994b) have provided a foundation for further hypothesis testing. Centenarian studies have identified a number of characteristics associated with extreme longevity. For example, food preferences (Fischer, Johnson, Poon, & Martin, 1995), marital status (Samuelsson et al., 1997), personality and coping strategies (Martin et al., 1992), levels of family support (Capurso et al., 1997), and education (Poon et al., 1992; Ravaglia et al., 1997) have all been linked with successful late-life aging.

However, the robustness of these findings awaits further research owing to variations from different centenarian studies in samples, subject selection and research methods. For example, the first two phases of the Georgia Centenarian Study (1988 – 1998) examined community-dwelling and cognitively intact centenarians whom are estimated to be about 20 to 30% of the centenarian population. The findings await generalization to the other 70% of centenarians and research on predictors that could differentiate functional differences among centenarians. This is one of the goals of our current phase III program project (2001 – 2007).

Study Phases

Phase 1 (1988-1992)

A cross-sectional study examining unique adaptational characteristics of community-dwelling and cognitively-intact centenarians, octogenarians, and sexagenarians in Georgia. A collaboration among The University of Georgia, Medical College of Georgia, and Iowa State University. Funded by NIMH. Read more about Phase 1.

Phase 2 (1992-1998)

A study of longitudinal changes in adaptational capacity among the three cohorts. Funded by NIMH. Read more about Phase 2.

Phase 3 (2001-2006)

A study to identify and isolate longevity genes, neuropathology, and functional capacity of a population-based sample of centenarians and controls in 31 counties in Northern Georgia. A collaboration among The University of Georgia, Louisiana State University, Boston University, University of Kentucky, Emory University, Duke University, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, Iowa State University and University of Michigan. Funded by NIA. Read more about Phase 3


View a list of publications from the Georgia Centenarian Study.

International Centenarian Study Consortium

The Georgia Centenarian Study collaborates with centenarian studies all over the world. Read more about the Consortium.

Request More Information

For more information on the Georgia Centenarian Study, please contact the Institute of Gerontology.