Radical life extension: What would you think of living to 120 and beyond, survey asks
Ravell Call, Deseret News
TOOELE — Maxine T. Grimm never expected to live so long, 99 on her most recent birthday. But as her 100th looms, she highly recommends it. She's had a life that included school and world travel, husband and children, and lots of friends across multiple generations.
The trick, she notes, is keeping yourself in good health and exercising. She suggests walking and movement in general. "Change positions often, don't sit all the time. Do things that set you in motion," she says. "And be sociable. That's a very important part of it. Continue to meet new people, do new things, be interested in the things around you. Help by teaching people. And remember to learn from them, too."
Pew Research Center recently asked Americans a provocative question: If you could live to be 120 or even older, would you welcome it? Tuesday morning, Pew released the results.
The survey found Americans largely ambivalent and skeptical, though intrigued by the notion, despite an aging population, consistent incremental gains in life expectancy and medical advances that take the idea of living 120 years and beyond from far-fetched to potentially possible.
"On the one hand, most Americans would like to live beyond today's life span," said Cary Funk, a senior researcher at Pew, who noted the survey found that most view a gradual increase in the number of older Americans as a good thing. "But they see 'up sides and down sides' to medical advances that would allow people routinely to live significantly longer. Most would not want it themselves but think other people would. On balance, most think it would be a bad thing."
The "it" is radical life extension — scientific advances that could let people routinely live decades longer than is usual now.
The question is speculative, Funk and fellow researcher David Masci told the Deseret News. But it's not without merit. "We thought putting down a marker now would be worthwhile."
"Some futurists think 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 more," said the report, titled "Living to 120 and Beyond." "The possibility that extraordinary life spans could become ordinary life spans no longer seems far-fetched."
Already living longer
The U.S. population is already aging rapidly, helped in no small part by falling birthrates and increasingly long lives. By 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that 20 percent of Americans will be at least 65, with more than 400,000 aged 100 years old or older. Increasingly, the researchers said, scientists, educators, religious leaders and others have begun discussing the possibilities of much longer lives.
Pew surveyed 2,012 adults about their attitudes on aging, health care, quality of life and medical advancements, including radical life extension. They also asked dozens of religious leaders from various faiths, and others, including scientists and ethicist, about their views.
More than two-thirds of the adults surveyed said they'd like to live between 79 and 100 years, which the report said is 11 years longer than the existing average American life expectancy. Most believe that by 2050, most cancer will be curable, and that artificial limbs "will perform better than natural ones."
Nearly two-thirds favor current medical advances that prolong life. But they feel "some trepidation" about new medical treatments and say some "often create as many problems as they solve." While most said they would not seek such life-prolonging treatments to gain decades themselves, they also believe the majority would.
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.
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