Want to live to 120? Most Americans say no, Pew poll finds

August 06, 2013|By Emily Alpert
  • Even if advances in medical treatment made it common to live past the age of 120, roughly half of Americans wouldn't be interested, according to a new Pew survey.
Even if advances in medical treatment made it common to live past the age… (Nicolas Tucat / AFP/Getty…)

For centuries, legends of a “fountain of youth” have beguiled people across the globe. But Americans are decidedly uneasy about whether science should actually help people push death far into the future.

Roughly half of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said medical treatments that stretch lifespans to 120 years or more would be bad for society. Even more shunned the idea of undergoing such treatments to extend their own lives, Pew found.

Pushing off death so far might seem like the stuff of science fiction. Scientists have yet to find any way to stretch the average life that long, Pew said in its report. Few Americans had heard much about the idea of “radical life extension,” and most didn't think it would happen by the middle of this century, Pew found.

But Pew researchers said they embarked on the poll anyway so that it could measure whether attitudes about the idea change over time, as scientists explore whether there is any way to dramatically prolong the average human life.

Radical life extension popped up in earlier research by Pew’s Religion and Public Life Project when it asked scientists and bioethicists about future ethical debates. Pope Benedict XVI broached the topic a few years ago, warning that “endless life would be no paradise.”

The pope emeritus is not alone with his worries, Pew discovered. Two out of three people fretted that only the rich would be able to lengthen their lives.

Just as many were concerned that scientists would offer up such treatments before their health effects were fully understood, or that longer lives would put a strain on natural resources. Less than half thought it would make the economy more productive.

Pew also found most Americans unexcited about living more than a century: More than two-thirds said they would like to live somewhere between 79 and 100 years, and some wanted a shorter life than that. Only 4% wanted to live to the age of 121 or beyond.

Younger adults were more likely to see technology allowing much longer lives as a good thing. Black and Hispanic Americans saw it more positively than whites did. Pew said it was uncertain why their views differed. Religious groups had only “modest differences” on the question.

Researchers also asked people about existing trends in aging, such as the elderly making up a growing share of the U.S. population. While experts have warned that the graying of the country imposes new challenges -- and many fear that the country is still not truly prepared -- most Americans polled said it was either a good thing for society or made little difference.

The Pew survey was done this spring with a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 adults.

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