Poll Says Americans Shy Away from Wanting to Live to Age 120

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 16, 2013

What if new biomedical advances could slow the aging process and allow people to live into their 12th decade (to age 120), would you want to have these new medical treatments? Although you might take this opportunity to keep death at bay for decades, a new research survey by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project finds most Americans (56%) say “no” – they, personally, would not want treatments to enable dramatically longer life spans. But roughly two-thirds (68%) think that most other people would choose to live to 120 and beyond.

Released last week, the ten page report, “Living to 120 and Beyond: American’s Views on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension,” notes that “some futurists think that even more radical changes are coming, including medical treatments that could slow, stop or reverse the aging process and allow humans to remain healthy and productive to the age of 120 or m ore. The possibility that extraordinary life spans could become ordinary life spaces no longer seems far-fetched.”

The Pew Research Center Report’s findings are tabulated from data compiled from a new nationwide telephone survey, conducted March 21-April 8, 2013, on cell phones and landlines, among a nationally representative sample of 2,012 adults. The overall margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Is Living Longer Better?

The Pew Research Center’s survey explores the public’s attitudes toward aging, 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. The findings indicated that overall, more Americans think dramatically longer life spans would be bad (51%) than good (41%) for society.

The researchers asked adult recipients how long they ideally would like to live, more than two-thirds (69%) cite an age between ages 79 and 100. (For this writer, eighty-nine years old is just the ripe old age to shed my mortal coil in this world.). The median desired life span of the survey respondents is 90 years – about 11 years longer than the current average U.S. life expectancy, which is 78.7 years. Just 9% of Americans say they want to live more than 100 years.

According to the researchers, because most people 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 life spans – and are deliberately vague about how this would be achieved or how healthy an average person would be at 120 and beyond.

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

According to the researchers, the study’s findings indicate that the U.S. public is not particularly concerned about the gradual rise in the percentage of Americans who are 65 and older. Nearly nine-in-ten adults surveyed stated that “having more elderly people in the population” either is a good thing for society (41%) or doesn’t make much difference (47%). Just 10% see the graying of America as a bad thing.

A Cure for Most Cancers, a Possibility

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

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

While forty-four percent of the respondents, for example, say that radical life extension would make the economy more productive because people could work longer, fifty-three percent disagree. Two-thirds say they think that dramatically longer life spans “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 respondents (79%) think that life-extending treatments should be available to everyone who wants them, most (66%) also think that, in practice, only the wealthy would have access to the new technology.

The researchers found that there some differences among religious groups when it comes to their attitudes about medical treatments that would slow the aging process and extend life by decades. Black Protestants are among the most likely to say radical life extension would be a good thing for society (54%). By contrast, fewer white evangelical Protestants (34%) and white Catholics (31%) say the same. Hispanic Catholics (44%) are more likely than white Catholics (31%) to think these treatments would be a good thing for society.

Ideal Life Span for Some Rhode Islanders

But what do Rhode Islander’s think about living longer, say into their 12th decade.

Kasey Johnson, development associate at Slater Mill Museum, will not seek out advanced medical technologies to extend her life. “Aging is viewed negatively in our culture,” the East Greenwich resident says, noting that those reaching very old age are often times seen by many as a drain on the nation’s economy and resources.

Johnson notes, Americans were not raised to honor or revere their elderly like they do in other cultures. “We end up resenting them for the time and energy it takes us to care for them. I wouldn’t want to live longer, only to be seen as a burden by everyone else,” says the 26 year old.

Graphic designer Neville Lassotovitch, 69, who lives with her retired husband, Peter, 70, and Daisy, their 17-year old beagle, in Barrington, would not mind extending her the years of her life by decades, but only if she was surrounded by her husband, good friends and children. “I would not want to be alone with out them,” she said.

Fifty-one year old Ken McGill, heading Pawtucket’s Board of Canvassers, sees a bright prospect of living a longer life. He has a lot to check off on his bucket list. “Nobody likes to pass on,” quips McGill, who notes that he plans to retire at age 70. “This would give me a good forty years to do all the things I have wanted to do, like traveling to see the world, even moving to Florida,” says the long-time Pawtucket resident.

Finally, like McGill, Keri Ambrosino, of Design By Keri, would “love” to live to the ripe old age of 120 years as long as her quality of life stayed “youthful” and her thinking remained sharp. “Quality of life overbears on quantity in my book,” says the 33 year old West Warwick resident.

Other Reports Released on Radical Life Extension

There is, at present, no method of slowing the aging process and extending the average life expectancy to 120 years or more. But research aimed at unlocking the secrets of aging is underway at universities and corporate labs, and religious leaders, bioethicists and philosophers have begun to think about the morality of radical life extension.

Together with the survey results, Pew Research Center is releasing two accompanying reports. “To Count Our Days: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Radical Life Extension” presents an overview of the scientific research and the emerging ethical debate. “Religious Leaders’ Views on Radical Life Extension” describes how some clergy, bioethicists, theologians and other scholars think their religious traditions might approach the issue.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com

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