Ask the folks around you if they would like to live to be 120 and the results may correspond roughly with age.

Young people might say, as did the bright 22-year-old with a desk near my office, “Sure, if I could remain active and healthy.”

Older people, however, tend to grimace in horror. They respond as did another co-worker of a certain age: “Just put me down like a dog when I reach 90.”

And yet 90 may soon be the new 40. Science is forging ahead with relentless vigor.

In 1900, people lived an average of 47 years. Today it’s 78.7 and growing — perhaps soon by leaps and bounds. Before long, grandpa and teenagers may have more in common than trouble keeping their baggy pants from falling down.

Researchers have been extending the lives of insects and vermin using chemicals with names such as thioflavin T or curcumin. Worms, mice and flies can not only live a lot longer than before, but can be made to be more energetic and youthful than their counterparts who didn’t receive any treatment.

We might want to hope scientists apply this to humans soon, before the world is overrun with energetic old worms, flies and mice.

Not that we’re anxious for it. The Pew Research Center released a report Tuesday on aging and the possibility of radical life extensions. It found most people believe others would want to live decades longer than current lifespans, but that they personally (by a spread of 56 percent to 38 percent) would not.

The study also found more than two-thirds of Americans place the ideal lifespan at somewhere between 79 and 100.

Maybe this is because older folks can’t imagine what it once felt like to be young. Try asking someone near the end of a marathon whether he or she wants to keep going.

Or it may be because we associate being 100 and older with those occasional television interviews in which centenarians mumble about clean living and exercise, while apparently being barely able to gum a piece of bread or take a lap around the living room.

But what if you really could look and feel young at age 120?

How would the world be different if we had a bunch of people 120, or older, roaming the earth, full of energy and vitality?

For one thing, Congress would have a much harder time trying to keep Social Security solvent for the long haul, especially with baby boomers booming loudly.

Strom Thurmond might still be around, representing South Carolina, as might a host of other incumbents with little tolerance for young ideologues who refuse to compromise. Lawmakers who negotiated the civil rights era and Vietnam would take a different approach to partisanship and terrorism, as well as to a decline in moral behavior, than what we’re seeing today.

Perhaps the older generation would have a leveling effect on everything from discussions about how to save the Postal Service to gay marriage. Political rhetoric might soften a bit if a bloc of voters existed who had cast their first ballots for William Howard Taft. Age tends to equate with wisdom.

That is, when it doesn’t lead to settling and hardening. Maybe the old energetic people would be more resistant to change than the young energetic ones. Someone who helped craft the New Deal might have trouble admitting it needs to be dismantled in the face of a new age.

5 comments on this story

Wisdom can breed resentment among the young, who may insist on learning things the old-fashioned way, through their own mistakes.

And do we really want television, Youtube and web sites to fixate on a war of words between Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds, or on seeing how Gypsy Rose Lee looks on the beach at 102?

Maybe my older friends are onto something. Perhaps we should put the flies, mice and worms on ice for awhile while we think about this.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.