If Pittsburgh has cleared the summit of a longtime aging trend and is headed back down -- as new 2010 data suggest -- it is because of people like 23-year-old Sudipta "Nila" Devanath.
She was born at Magee-Womens Hospital in 1987 but her father, here studying on a fellowship, decided with her mother they didn't want to settle in Pittsburgh. Ms. Devanath grew up in Virginia, only to arrive as a University of Pittsburgh student herself in 2006.
Now a Pitt medical student, she's seen a livelier city than her parents ever did, and she has no intention of leaving. She's among a surge of people in their early 20s living here over the past decade, part of the reason the city's median age (meaning half the residents are older than it and half younger) dropped from 35.5 to 33.2 between 2000 and 2010.
"People often come here to study, thinking it's just for four years, and they end up working here, staying here, because they end up falling in love with the place," said Ms. Devanath, an Oakland resident who heads the multi-college Pittsburgh Student Government Council.
The unusual drop in the city's median age was among the findings in the U.S. Census Bureau's release today of new information from last year's population count. For both the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, the number of elderly residents as well as their percentage of the overall population are on the decline.
That's no surprise to demographers who follow the trends occurring naturally from the low birth rates of the Depression and World War II era -- people who would largely be ages 65 to 80 now -- but it's a marked shift in a region known for decades for pronounced graying of its population.
The 42,151 people age 65 and older living in Pittsburgh proper last year was a 23.4 percent drop from the 55,034 in 2000. Those older adults are now 13.8 percent of the population, compared to 16.4 percent a decade earlier.
Allegheny County's elderly population declined from 17.8 percent to 16.8 percent, with 205,059 people in the age group now, or 23,357 less than in 2000. After the 2000 census, Allegheny had the second-highest percentage of elderly among the nation's counties with at least 1 million residents, behind only Palm Beach, Fla. It's uncertain where it stands now, because the Census Bureau has not released information yet for all states.
What's clear, though, is that some of the local trends run counter to those elsewhere. The Pittsburgh area and Pennsylvania overall grew disproportionately old from the loss of many young people during the manufacturing decline a quarter-century ago. The population here is still relatively old, but is no longer aging at a faster clip than elsewhere.
While Pittsburgh's median age dropped by more than two full years in a decade, the median age rose in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Minneapolis, among other comparably sized cities for which data were released.
And while the 65-and-up age group fell slightly as a share of Pennsylvania's still-relatively old population, to 15.4 percent from 15.6, the proportion of elderly continues to increase in nearly all other states.
The state had a 17.2 percent growth, meanwhile, in people ages 20 to 24, reflecting the large number of children of that age born to baby boomers. In that age group, Pittsburgh had an even bigger surge of 22.1 percent. The city had nearly 8,000 more residents in their early 20s in 2010 than 2000, fueled in part by the growth of local colleges.
Many institutions are enrolling more students than ever before, and housing more of them on campus as well -- which is where the Census Bureau counts them. The University of Pittsburgh reports that enrollment grew by about 2,500 students on its Oakland campus during the decade. Point Park, though a much smaller school, still gained more than 1,000 students.
Word of the city's younger median age was cheered by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's spokeswoman, Joanna Doven. It made official some anecdotal evidence she said existed that young adults were increasingly drawn here -- or inclined to remain here -- by affordable housing, quality-of-life amenities and job opportunities.
The administration has nothing against older people, she stressed, but, "We do want to see a young, vibrant city in Pittsburgh. We know younger people are going to lay down roots, and we know in the '80s a lot of people left, and we've suffered from that. To see that trend reversing is very promising."
Pittsburgh continues, however, to lack any influx of younger children. The 40,983 individuals age 14 and under in 2010 represented a 26.2 percent drop.
At the other end of the age span, the 85-plus age group showed a slight increase in Pittsburgh but a bigger rise of almost 25 percent in Allegheny County, which now has 35,116 among a group sometimes called the "oldest old." That compares to a drop of about 10 percent in the county's overall population at 65 and above.
Mary Phan-Gruber, a deputy administrator for the Allegheny County Department of Aging, said that while there are a fewer people around in their 70s, there are increased needs from the oldest group already and anticipation of a heavy demand volume from the front-edge baby boomers who are at age 65 or approaching it.
"Those are folks we know we're going to have to prepare for, resource-wise," at a time when government budgets are not growing, she noted.
The state and county have been shifting more funding and services to help frail people remain at home and avoid more costly nursing home care. Allegheny County showed a decline of 4,090 in nursing home residents from census to census, as part of a state reduction of more than 26,000.
A case has been made in the past that the disproportionately large elderly population has benefited the region in terms of bringing stable government dollars via Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that help prop up the regional economy, in addition to retirees' private pensions.
The news of a younger shift was welcomed, however, among those who have long tried to create an environment in which people would want to stay after college. The PUMP group was created in 1995 for that purpose, and executive director Erin Molchany, 33, said she was smiling to hear the city is skewing younger.
She said young people here today are increasingly enthused about Downtown redevelopment and economic opportunities spinning out of the universities and health and technology fields and their collaborations.
Those are the kinds of changes that have Ms. Devanath interested in staying after she completes her medical degree -- the opposite of her own parents' planning.
"I was actually considering leaving," she said, "but one reason I decided to stay was because, at least from my experience as a [student] in the city of Pittsburgh, I really like the opportunities for young people here and now."
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255.