Live to 100 – Centenarians in the UK

If you are an avid reader of Live to 100 with Dr Amir Khan, you will have an active interest in living longer and staying more healthy. But what is it actually like to live to 100? Now a report published by the UK’s Office for National Statistics explains just that, with an analysis of data on centenarians from the 2021 census.

Main points

  • Over the past century, the number of centenarians living in England and Wales has increased 127-fold, reaching 13,924 in 2021; however, centenarians still only represent 0.02% of the total population.
  • Male centenarians in 2021 had outlived their life expectancy at birth by four decades and female centenarians by three decades.
  • Two in five centenarians lived alone; one in five lived in private households with other people; the remaining two in five lived in a communal establishment.
  • A higher proportion of male centenarians were married than female centenarians; this is because of the longer life expectancy of females and because men, on average, marry women slightly younger than themselves.
  • A quarter of centenarians reported having good or very good health and almost a third were non-disabled. 
  • The three local authorities (LA) with the highest proportion of centenarians were on the south coast.
  • The UK ranks as the seventh country worldwide for highest number of centenarians, and ninth once population size is taken into account.

Centenarians over time

A centenarian is a person aged 100 years or over.

Lauretta Boston from London celebrated her milestone 100th birthday in October 2022. She spoke to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) about her life and experience of being a centenarian living in England.

You never think you’re going to reach that age. Even a few months before, I was wondering if I was going to reach 100 because there is always something that goes wrong health-wise.

Lauretta Boston

On Census Day in 2021, there were 13,924 centenarians living in England and Wales, a 24.5% increase from 2011. This is the highest number of centenarians recorded in an England and Wales census. The number of people living to age 100 has increased over time as life expectancy has improved. Since 1921, the number of centenarians in the population has risen from 110, a 127-fold increase. However, in 2021, centenarians still only represented 0.02% of the total population.

From 1921 to 1961, the number of centenarians in the population rose very gradually, but from that point the rate of increase was rapid. The main reason for the rise was improvements in mortality rates, particularly at older ages, that occurred in the second half of the 20th century. This is, in part, because of advances in healthcare and public health measures, which led to improved air quality and working conditions. Birth cohort sizes will also have had some influence on the number of centenarians over time. Read more about birth cohorts in our Births in England and Wales: 2022 bulletin.

Historically, there have always been more female centenarians than males because of higher life expectancy for females. This remained true in 2021, with a sex ratio of 23 males per 100 females. There was a total of 11,288 female and 2,636 male centenarians in England and Wales on Census Day 2021.

Although the ages of centenarians living in England and Wales ranged from 100 to 112, over 90% were aged between 100 and 103 years, with the average (mean) age being 101 years, 1 month and 2 weeks. Around the time of birth of these centenarians in 1921, life expectancy was 67.9 years for females and 61.2 years for males, according to our Life tables, principal projection, England and Wales dataset. This cohort have outlived their life expectancy by an average of 32 years for females and 39 years for males.

In contrast, for babies born in 2021, their life expectancy at birth is projected to be 90.5 years for females and 87.6 years for males. For these babies, 19.6% of females and 14.1% of males can expect to live to become a centenarian. The life expectancy figures refer to cohort life tables, which include projected data that take into account improvements in mortality over the last 100 years.

Lauretta recalled events she saw living in London like watching gas lights being lit in the streets, celebrating Empire Day with little flags at school, seeing neighbours getting into debt after the great depression, watching the Oxford-Cambridge boat race on a television in a shop window when no one had a television at home, and going to the Post Office to make a phone call in a cubicle through an operator.

“After the war, there were clothes coupons, because clothing was still rationed. I saw people wounded during the war on the street selling matches and they maybe had just one arm or a crutch under the arm and just one leg. They weren’t allowed to beg, but in actual fact people put the money on the tray but didn’t take the matches.”

Where centenarians were living

In England and Wales, there were 23 centenarians per 100,000 population on Census Day 2021. The proportion was the same for England alone, which had a total of 13,124 in this age group. Wales had a higher proportion, at 25 centenarians per 100,000, a total of 800 in this age group.

At local authority (LA) level, 159 LAs had a higher number of centenarians per 100,000 population than the overall England and Wales figure. Figure 3 shows the distribution of centenarians across LAs in England and Wales.

The three LAs with the highest number of centenarians per 100,000 population were East Devon, Arun, and New Forest (64, 59, 57 per 100,000, respectively). These LAs are all on the south coast of England. Of the top 10 LAs with the higher number of centenarians per 100,000 population, nine were in coastal areas. Our Census maps interactive tool can be used to see the distribution of other age groups by LA.

Relatively high numbers of centenarians live in LAs containing large cities because of their larger populations. For example, Birmingham has the highest number of centenarians overall at 193. However, there were only 17 centenarians per 100,000 people. Of the eight LAs with the lowest number of centenarians per 100,000 population (fewer than 10), six were London boroughs. The other two were Knowsley and Crawley, both with nine centenarians per 100,000 population.

Lauretta describes herself as “a town person”. She has lived in London all of her life.

“People used to dress up to go into town to go down Bond Street. I would add accessories to my clothes like collars and cuffs and you wouldn’t go out in the summer without your little gloves on. Fashion is still important to me.

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