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Americans are scattering more when they retire, drifting away from Florida, California and other traditional magnet states.

Population researcher Charles F. Longino Jr. likens it to the silting in of a deep river channel, spreading the flow out "so that more boats are getting out to docks on the smaller streams and slightly fewer are coming to the big places.""I think this is probably a long-term phenomenon which has been noticed for the first time. I think what we've spotted here is a long-term trend," said Longino, a professor at Wake Forest University and Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Longino details the movement of retirees in a new book, "Retirement Migration in America," published by Vacation Publications of Houston.

Overall, Longino's study found that 23 states attracted a larger share of the nation's moving retirees in the period 1985-90 than in 1975-80. By comparison, 17 states stayed the same and 11 lost shares - indicating the greater dispersion of retirees.

Retirees are a lucrative prize for states that can attract them, Longino explained.

Those that were most successful in the past, such as Florida and California, seem to be losing market share.

At the same time, North Carolina has gained sharply, and Virginia and Georgia moved into the top 10 for the first time. North Carolina, which was in 27th place in 1960, was in fifth spot with 3.4 percent of movers in the 1990 count.

Idaho and Utah ranked 39th and 40th, respectively, each attracting about 0.6 percent of the out-of-state retirees. In 1980, Idaho was 37th and Utah was 40th, each attracting about 0.5 percent of the retirees.

Longino pointed out that most Americans stay put when they retire, with 84 percent of people age 55 and over saying they want to remain in their current homes.

But those who do relocate have become the focus of intense marketing campaigns, creating a "mailbox economy" in retirement communities whose residents receive a monthly infusion of cash from pensions, investments and Social Security.

Becoming a retirement center can be a real economic boon for a state, Longino said.