Living to 120 & beyond

If new medical treatments could slow the ageing process and allow people to live decades longer, to at least 120 years old, would you want to have the treatments? A survey done recently by the Pew Research Center, a US non-partisan fact tank, finds that most Americans (56 percent) say “no” – they, personally, would not want treatments to enable dramatically longer lives. But roughly two-thirds (68 percent) think that most other people would choose to live to 120 and beyond.

The survey explores the public’s attitudes toward ageing, medical advances and what some biomedical researchers call “radical life extension” – the possibility that scientific breakthroughs someday could allow people to live much longer than is possible today. Overall, more Americans think dramatically longer lifespans would be bad (51 percent) than good (41 percent) for society.

Asked how long they ideally would like to live, more than two-thirds of US adults (69 percent) cite an age between 79 and 100. The median desired lifespan of survey respondents is 90 years – about 11 years longer than the current average US life expectancy, which is 78.7 years. Just nine percent of Americans say they want to live more than 100 years.

“On the one hand, most Americans would like to live beyond today’s average life expectancy,” said Cary Funk, the survey’s principal researcher. “But on the other hand, and perhaps surprisingly, a majority of Americans say they would not choose to undergo medical treatments to slow the ageing process and live decades longer – to 120 or more.”

Because most Americans say they have heard little or nothing about the possibility of radically extended lifetimes, and because the scientific breakthroughs are far from certain, the wording of the survey questions focus on the result – much longer lifespans – and are deliberately vague about how this would be achieved or how healthy an average person would be at 120 and beyond.


Attitudes towards ageing & medical advances

The survey also seeks to put the forward-looking questions about radical life extension into perspective by asking Americans about their views on ageing, health care, medical advances in general, personal life satisfaction and bioethical issues.

The findings suggest that the US public is not particularly concerned about the gradual rise in the percentage of Americans who are 65 and older. Nearly nine-in-10 adults surveyed say that “having more elderly people in the population” either is a good thing for society (41 percent) or doesn’t make much difference (47 percent). Just 10 percent see the greying of America as a bad thing.

On balance, the public also tends to view medical advances in general as good (63 percent) rather than as interfering with the natural cycle of life (32 percent). And the public is optimistic that some extraordinary breakthroughs will occur in the next few decades. For example, about seven-in-10 Americans think that by the year 2050 there will be a cure for most forms of cancer (69 percent) and that artificial arms and legs will perform better than natural ones (71 percent).

But there is skepticism that radical life extension will be possible anytime soon. Only a quarter of US adults think that by 2050, the average American will live to be 120 years old; nearly three-quarters (73 percent) say this either “probably” or “definitely” will not happen. And, if it does happen, many Americans foresee both positive and negative consequences for society.

More than four-in-10 adults (44 percent), for example, say that radical life extension would make the economy more productive because people could work longer, but 53 percent disagree. Two-thirds say they think that dramatically longer lifespans “would strain our natural resources” and that medical scientists would offer life-extending treatments before they fully understood the health effects. And although a solid majority of Americans (79 percent) think that life-extending treatments should be available to everyone who wants them, most (66 percent) also think that, in practice, only the wealthy would have access to the new technology.

These are among the key findings of a nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. The survey was conducted in early 2013, among a sample of 2,012 adults.

The full report is available on the Religion & Public Life Project’s website.



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