The number of centenarians in Europe

1. Introduction

It is well known today that the number of centenarians is increasing in Europe but this knowledge is relatively new. In his seminal paper on the compression of morbidity in 1980, one of the main arguments used by James Fries, to justify the choice of his ultimate survival curve distributed around the modal life span of 85 years was the total absence of any increase in the number of centenarians since the 19th century in England & Wales (Fries, 1980). The belief that the number of centenarians cannot increase over time was shared at that time by the main biologists on ageing (see for instance Cutler, 1985; Walford, 1985; Hayflick, 1996).

Indeed, an increase in the number of centenarians was first foreseen in the 1980s through speculative scenarios of mortality decline for the 21st century (Vaupel and Gowan, 1986). Empirical studies soon confirmed that this increase had already started during the 20th century in England & Wales and accelerated after World War II (Thatcher, 1992). In the mid 1990s, James Vaupel and Bernard Jeune demonstrated that the number of centenarians had doubled on average every ten years since 1950 in half a dozen Western and Nordic European countries (Vaupel and Jeune, 1995). Since that time, the increase in the number of centenarians has been meticulously described in Japan (Robine and Saito, 2003; Robine et al., 2003) and in a handful of European countries such as Denmark (Skytthe and Jeune, 1995; Jeune and Skytthe, 2001), England & Wales (Thatcher, 1997, 1999 and 2001), Belgium (Poulain et al., 2001), France (Vallin and Meslé, 2001) and Switzerland (Robine et Paccaud, 2005). Recently, Robine and Caselli collated data on the emergence of centenarians in 10 European countries, i.e. Denmark, England and Wales, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Measuring the centenarian doubling time in each of these countries, they reported varying rates of increase, from generally rapid increases in France, Italy and Switzerland to slower increases in Denmark and the Netherlands. They proposed a specific centenarian rate (CR) within each birth cohort to assess the significance of the actual number of centenarians (Robine and Caselli, 2005). But, by and large, no such study has been performed on the European scale, due to the difficulty and the burden of data collection.

The current analysis of the number of centenarians in Europe was made possible thanks to the development of the Human Mortality Database ( First begun in 2002 the Human Mortality Database (HMD) began with only four countries which had previously been included in the Berkeley Mortality Database (BMD), but each year additional countries have been added to reach an impressive 38 countries by 2009. All the data used in this paper come from the HMD.

2. Data

At the beginning of 2009, the HMD held demographic data for 38 countries, including most of the European countries. Data were downloaded on March 31, 2009 in the form of population estimates at January 1st for 36 countries, by single age and sex from age 0 to age 110+, from 1946 onwards. In addition to European countries data for Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, New Zealand and the United States of America were included. Among the European countries excluded were Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.

In this analysis we kept only the population estimates at age 100 and over from 1946 onwards, except in the case of France where earlier data were needed to draw up Figure 8, for two main reasons: firstly most of the increase in the number of centenarians occurred after World War II and secondly the majority of European countries do not have longstanding vital statistic series. Indeed for the year 1946 the HMD provides population estimates for only 14 European countries (Belgium, Denmark, England & Wales, Finland, France, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland). The data collected for the other European countries starts in 1947 for Austria and Bulgaria, in 1950 for the Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland and Slovakia, in 1956 for Germany, in 1958 for Poland, in 1959 for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, in 1960 for Luxemburg, and eventually in 1983 for Slovenia.

We computed several indicators from this data, including the centenarian rate (CR) defined as the number of centenarians (age 100) per 10,000 people aged 60 years, forty years earlier (Robine and Caselli, 2005). We also computed the 10-year increase in the number of centenarians between the years 1946, 1956, 1966, 1976, 1986, 1996 and 2006. For the last 3 years, 1986, 1996 and 2006, the HMD provide population estimates for 27 European countries. We added together Western and Eastern German population estimates for the years prior to reunification.

Our paper is divided into four sections. In the first section we describe the main features of the increase in the number of centenarians in the European countries whilst the second section summarizes these changes over time at the European regional level. In the third section we highlight the variability throughout the European region in the speed of increase during the last decade, 1996-2006, as well as the centenarian rate. In the final section we compare the European figures with those from Japan as this is the country which since 1986 has led the longevity revolution (Oeppen and Vaupel, 2002; Robine and Saito, 2003; Robine et al., 2003).

Jean-Marie Robine: National Institute on Health and Medical Research, INSERM, France. E-mail:
Yasuhiko Saito: Nihon University Advanced Research Institute for the Sciences and Humanities, Tokyo.
1 This manuscript has been completed while the first author is a Visiting Professor of the Nihon University. We thank Carol Jagger for her comments on a previous version.

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