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Radical life extension: What would you think of living to 120 and beyond, survey asks

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 6 2013 10:00 a.m. MDT

Just over half — 51 percent — said medical treatments that slow aging and let the average person live decades longer, to 120 or older, would be a bad thing for society, compared to 41 percent who see it as good. On the other hand, only 1 in 4 believe the average person will actually be able to live that long by 2050.

Lots of questions

Americans are also largely skeptical about whether the advances that could improve longevity will be available on a fair basis. "An overwhelming majority" said such longevity enhancers should be available to everyone, but two-thirds believe only wealthy people would have access to such treatments.

Other potential worries are strain on natural resources, offering treatments before long-term effects are well understood and that treatments would be unnatural. The public divided over whether such extensions would help or hurt the economy, with just over half rejecting the notion it would make the economy "more productive."

Younger adults seemed more welcoming to and interested in life extension than older adults, but generally there were not many differences across social and demographic groups, including those based on gender, education or income levels.

The survey didn't outline how such gains in life span might come about, but a separate report looks at possibilities, along with the scientific and ethical issues that might go along with them. "To Count Our Days: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Radical Life Extension" points not only to existing longevity gains wrought by advances in medicine, nutrition and public health, but to unproven theories, from calorie restriction to genetic engineering.

It quotes Aubrey de Grey, chief science officer at an anti-aging think tank, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation, who said in 2011 that "we have a 50/50 chance of bringing aging under what I'd call a decisive level of medical control within the next 25 years or so."

Among those who believe in such a conquest, there's diverse opinion about how it will occur. Some believe engineers and computer scientists may have more to do with it than biomedical researchers, the paper said.

Broad agreement exists, though, that such gains in longevity would be accompanied by public policy and personal-preference questions, from the impact on programs like Social Security or Medicare to whether views on marriage would change if it could span 100 years? Or, "In a world where people may not look or act much older than their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents, would relationships remain the same?" the report asked.

The survey also found some differences and similarities among different faith groups regarding radical life extension.

Masci pointed out that religions have not created policy to address the subject, which itself is futuristic speculation. Even so, people have thought about it. "Who hasn't thought about mortality and living longer," he said. "It's on our minds, even if we don't characterize it as radical life extension." The Pew researcher said he was "intrigued" that when he asked 40 different people in 40 different religious groups and denominations, "no one categorically said, 'We would prohibit this.’ ” What he encountered was concern and wariness.

Concerns included worries about social inequality — such as whether only the wealthy would be able to avail themselves of whatever made the extra years possible — as well as environmental issues and even questions of whether long lives would cause people to "focus less on the transcendent." Some were also troubled by whether methods employed to gain extra years would be acceptable. For instance, some religions oppose cloning or embryonic stem cell research that might play a role in extending longevity, he said.

EMAIL: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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