NEW YORK – Reports of Americans living beyond the ripe old age of 100, it appears, were greatly exaggerated.

The Census Bureau predicted six years ago that the country would be home to 114,000 centenarians by 2010. The actual number was 53,364, the census reported recently.

The figures challenged assumptions that increasing life expectancy will mean more U.S. residents living into their 100s. The oldest human, who lived to 122, died back in 1997: Jeanne Louise Calment sold canvas to Van Gogh at her family’s fabric store in Arles, France.

“Here we have 6.9 billion people and no one has come close, survival-wise, to this one lady almost 15 years ago,” said Tom Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at the Boston University School of Medicine. “That should give you an indication of how incredibly rare it is. We really are hitting a plateau.”

The census numbers on centenarians, which remain the object of much dispute among demographers, don’t suggest that more people aren’t living longer. Life expectancy increased from 51.5 years for a man born in 1900 to 80.1 years for a man born in 2001, according to the Social Security Administration.

Rather, some demographers and researchers say the century mark may just be tougher for humans to reach than previously imagined.

“The likelihood that we will continue to increase the proportion of centenarians is not great, not at all,” Leonard Hayflick, a professor of anatomy at the University of California, San Francisco, said in an interview. “It’s probably contrary to most people’s thinking because of the hype that has grown up around this field in the last 20 years.”

Hayflick, 83, challenged the notion in 1961, when he discovered what is now known as The Hayflick Limit — that cells age as they divide only a fixed number of times.

Many demographers, including those at the Census Bureau, based their projections on the assumption that life expectancy will increase indefinitely.

Hayflick called that idea “nonsense” because the technological gains made during the 1900s are one-time improvements in health that can’t be duplicated.

“In 1900, very few people had in-house toilets and bathing facilities,” said Hayflick, whose own mother is 105.

Counting centenarians has been a tricky business. Birth records were poor at the turn of the last century, when those now turning 100 were born. Demographers also have found that people are more inclined to inflate, rather than deflate, their age. The census bureau doesn’t disagree.

Traditionally, centenarians have been seen as keys to giving people clues on how to live healthier lives.

Many of them report that they simply enjoyed life as it arrived, researchers say.

Ebby Halliday, 100, the founder of Ebby Halliday Realtors in Dallas, drove to work every day until six months ago.

“Don’t smoke, don’t drink and don’t retire,” Halliday said.

“I like what I do.”