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updated 3/23/2010 5:44:54 PM ET 2010-03-23T21:44:54

Battered by recession, more older Americans are staying put in traditional big cities to hold onto jobs, creating slowdowns in population growth at once-popular retirement destinations widely found in the South and West.

Census estimates released Tuesday capture the impact of the housing downturn and economic recession, including the critical period after the financial meltdown in late 2008, on the nation's counties and metropolitan areas.

The population figures show that annual growth of retirement-destination counties slipped from 3.1 percent between 2000 and 2007, to 1.7 percent between 2007 and 2009, despite the large cohort of baby boomers who are reaching retirement age.

In all, 126 of the 440 retirement counties — those that attract large numbers of people 60 and older — lost population during the recession, many of them in Sunbelt areas such as Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and California. In Florida, 33 of its 43 retirement counties grew more slowly, while seven others, led by Daytona Beach in Volusia County, lost population.

Retirement magnets in other parts of the nation saw significant declines, too, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

"Baby boomers helped fuel housing and population growth in retirement areas earlier in the decade, and now they are playing an important role in the decline," said Mark Mather, associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau, who analyzed the retirement figures.

In the next few years, the number of older workers will increase by 11.9 million, making up nearly 1 in 4 workers by 2016 as more seniors hold onto jobs due partly to shriveled home values and decreased stock portfolios.

"A growing number of baby boomers want to continue working after age 65, and many are choosing to live closer to cities to keep their options open," Mather said.

The numbers, current as of July 2009, are the last population estimates for metros and counties before the official 2010 headcount is completed later this year. Data from the 2010 census, now under way, will be used to redraw legislative boundaries and distribute more than $400 billion in federal aid.

Overall, fewer people are migrating to wider spaces in the Sun Belt in a reversal from earlier in the decade. Once booming in population due to the housing bubble, many of these areas are now experiencing sharply slower growth.

For the first time in decades, more people moved out of Las Vegas than moved in, due to foreclosures and a depressed tourism industry, while Orlando, Fla., had more people move out for a second year in a row. Also seeing decreases in residents moving in were Phoenix, Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C.

In contrast, Cleveland and Philadelphia stanched some population losses, while New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago saw gains. Boosted by a burst of federal hiring, the Washington, D.C., region had more residents move in than move out for the first time in seven years.

"The migration slowdown has not let up," said William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution who analyzed the data. "The decade that began with 9/11, a dot-com bust, then a housing boom and bust, and more recently the Great Recession, has turned traditional snowbelt to Sunbelt migration on its head."

"It remains to be seen when and where a turnaround in the nation's unforeseen migration patterns will take place," he said.

One exception was Texas, a Sunbelt state that saw substantial gains due to a stronger labor market and immigrant growth. For the second year in a row, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston ranked first and second among metros with the most numerical gains, each adding more than 140,000 people.

Texas, which also had Austin and San Antonio in the top 20 list, stands to gain up to four House seats after the 2010 census.

Other findings:

  • The New Orleans area grew 1.8 percent last year to nearly 1.2 million, just short of its pre-Hurricane Katrina level of 1.3 million.
  • The fastest-growing metro last year was Hinesville-Fort Stewart, Ga., home to several Army brigades. Its population jumped 5.9 percent to 74,420 people.
  • Since the 2000 census, 21 cities have moved up in the rankings of the 50 most populated U.S. metro areas. They included Dallas, which moved to the fourth spot behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Eighteen cities moved down, among them Philadelphia, which slipped from fourth to fifth.

The 2009 estimates were released as more than 120 million forms for the 2010 census arrived in mailboxes this month. The estimates use local records of births and deaths, Internal Revenue Service records of people moving within the United States, and census statistics on immigrants.

Results from the official 2010 head count will be published beginning in December.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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