Americans don’t want to live to be 120—even if they could

Age 50 is the new 80.
Age 50 is the new 80.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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Radical life extension—pushing humans’ maximum age well beyond the natural average—is all the rage. Self-proclaimed futurist Ray Kurzweil wants us to hit the supplements and reset our biochemistry, while theoretical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey says one of us alive today will live 1,000 years thanks to new anti-aging techniques that he believes will soon emerge. Russian media millionaire Dmitry Itskov says we’ll be able to upload our minds to technological “carriers,” while other so-called transhumanists point to a mix of nanotechnology, cryonics and various medical advances as being imminently available means of extending our lives to 120 and well beyond.

But do we really want to live forever?

Americans apparently don’t. According to a new study by Pew Research’s Religion & Public Life Project, a majority polled weren’t interested in extending their years well beyond the average of 78.64 years toward 120, though most do think tacking on another decade to their lives would be okay. A slight majority—51%—think advances that could extend life toward 120 would be bad for society, though 73% say they don’t think radical life extension an issue that they will have to worry about by 2050, as medicine won’t be that far advanced.

Long life, but for the 1%

Despite the extropian excitement of life extension’s proponents, Pew’s respondents were much more cautious about the impacts of extending aging. Two-thirds said a radically older population would strain national resources, while an equal amount think doctors probably won’t have fully investigated the impact of proposed treatments before rolling them out. Life extension could also push populist buttons in the future, with 79% thinking everyone should have access to such technologies, while 66% think in reality, only the wealthy truly would have access to them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the percentage in favor of life extension declines with age (and, by extension, experience). While 43% of those aged 30 to 49 would favor stretching their existence another full lifetime, the number in favor drops to 31% among those over 65. This correlates with other quality of life data gathered by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which shows health worsens as age increases.

Polling unknown unknowns

As is often the case, respondents in public surveys have a difficult time projecting forward from anything other than an extrapolation of their current lives—so, if they’re living well and enjoying life, they may want to have that experience extended, whereas if they’ve had health problems, or the experience of difficulties aging, they may not see the point in extending that experience another 30 or 50 years. This is particularly pronounced in recent years where economic turbulence and rising incidence of chronic health issues has eroded overall quality of life within older populations.

London-based emerging technologies researcher Luke Robert Mason points to this last issue as a hurdle pollsters and life extension proponents alike face in probing the idea with the average public. “Clearly there is an assumption that the future will follow an evolution of the technologies [and] social conditions visible in the present,” Mason told me via e-mail. “Equally there is a poverty of imagination. Who knows what the world will be like post-120 years?”

Mason, who also advises Humanity Plus, an organization that advocates for life extension, thinks the extrapolation from current life conditions drives people to sell short possible future advances in medical technology that could shift our peak years forward. “We are making the assumption that life post-80 years will be lived in ill or declining health. Eighty could be the new 50.”

Tired of the future?

The Pew data could also represent a kind of “future fatigue” among the general public. Despite the fact that radical life extension has been touted as a possibility for decades, very little in the way of measurable extension has become tangible reality, beyond straightforward medical advances such as better disease treatment. Many of the technological fixes to aging that have been bandied about—cryogenics for human preservation and reanimation, major biochemical reprogramming, or actually uploading our souls to the cloud—remain well within the realm of the hypothetical at this point. In fact, despite these advances, in the US, growth in life expectancy has slowed, and America now falls ninth among OECD nations in terms of average years added to life between 1980 and 2009. What Americans add through new medical treatment, we are also very good at negating through diet, lifestyle, and weaponry.

While not everyone Pew surveyed was au courant in state-of-the art life extension technologies, most seemed intuit that, at least in the case of US society, without improvements in a broader spectrum of conditions, flipping a switch to live longer may not be as attractive as its advocates make it sound.