7. Proportion of the oldest-old in total population

Persons aged 80 years and over do not yet form a large part of the total population in any country but considering the support and care they need, they are a significant factor in many societies.

        The number and proportion of the oldest-old is shown in Table 4 for 30 countries. Though the numbers are often not precise, the proportion in total population can be considered a reasonable approximation even for countries with less reliable information. The highest proportion  - 4.2 percent - is recorded in Sweden while other Scandinavian and Central European countries generally have ratios exceeding 3.5 percent as a result of early demographic transition combined with low mortality of the elderly. Low proportions are found in non-European countries which still have relatively young populations, as well as in some Eastern European countries of relatively high mortality.

        In the 25 countries for which we have comparable data for 1960 and 1990, the proportion oldest-old more than doubled from 1.4 to 3.0 percent.

        When the oldest-old are joined with other elderly, they form a proportion 5 to 7 times as large as they do alone. Such a segment possesses considerable political power in the countries of the database all of which are now democracies.

        The impact of the on-going aging process is perhaps best measured as the increase in the proportion oldest-old in terms of percentage points rather than as relative increase which would be less meaningful in countries starting at a low base figure. Between 1960 and 1990 the proportion of oldest-old grew by the following percentage points in the total population:

Sweden 2.35 Germany, East 1.50
Germany, West 2.22 Luxemburg 1.49
Switzerland 2.12 Italy 1.46
Denmark 2.07 Hungary 1.42
Austria 1.86 Portugal 1.32
Finland 1.85 Spain 1.25
Scotland 1.73 Czechoslovakia 1.16
Norway 1.72 Iceland 1.04
England & Wales 1.71 Canada 0.96
Belgium 1.68 Estonia 0.96
France 1.67 Latvia 0.91
Japan 1.60 New Zealand 0.67
Netherlands 1.51

        The nine countries with the largest increase, more than 1.7, form a contiguous area in Central and Northern Europe. Slightly smaller increases are recorded in countries immediately to the West - Benelux and France - and still smaller ones in Southern and Eastern Europe. In these latter areas the impact of extreme aging is therefore more moderate for the time being, and the same applies to Japan.

        The proportion of centenarians is expressed in Table 5 per million population. The highest ratios, around 60-70 per million, are found in countries in which the demographic transition took place early and old age mortality has been low for some time. In Japan the ratio is still as low as 25 because the development there is of a recent origin.

        The extremely rapid build-up of the centenarian population is evident in its growth from 5.3 to 45.1 per million in only 30 years in the aggregate with the most precise data.

        The centenarians are everywhere still a quite small fraction of the population, less than one in 10,000 in all reliably documented countries but this limit is expected to be passed very soon on a broad front.

Updated by V. Castanova, 1 March 1999