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Centenarians no longer a rarity

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Lynn Adler, an advocate for the aging who enjoys the company of people who have made it to their 100th birthday, gave a party recently for her centenarian friends. Nine of them showed up.

Lloyd Botimer, 103, walked in carrying the medal he had won in the javelin throw in the Senior Olympics three years ago. Essie Brown, 105, who wore a blue dress and heels, let it be known that she was looking for a dance partner. And 101-year-old Lenore Schaeffer brought news clippings attesting to her fame as a ballroom-dancing centenarian. Last year, she made the "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno and the cover of the Japanese edition of Newsweek.Centenarians are not what they used to be. There are so many - 30,000 to 50,000 in the United States, according to demographers, up from the 1980 estimate of 15,000 - that it is hard to get a televised 100th-birthday greeting from Willard Scott, who mentions 12 centenarians every week on the "Today" show. Every week about 90 new centenarians are disappointed.

Only one in 10,000 Americans will live to be 100, and among those who do, the rate of disability is high. The nine centenarians at Lynn Adler's party, the ones who get on television and are held up as role models, are the exceptions.

Only about 30 percent of centenarians have full command of their faculties and are living in the community, said Leonard Poon, director of the University of Georgia gerontology center and the director of a 10-year study of centenarians.

He added that about 45 percent of centenarians had some sort of disability, varying in severity.

But centenarians are proportionately the United States' fastest-growing age group, with projections that by the middle of the next century, more than 800,000 Americans will be over 100.

And so many are making it to 100 in relatively good health, as life expectancies in general shoot up, that centenarians, once sentimentalized rarities, have become a symbol of the country's age boom and a metaphor for the dramatic shift in attitude about what old means.