Radical Life Extension, Anti-Aging Prospects Draw Wary Response

08/06/2013 03:26 pm ET
  • Jaweed Kaleem National Race and Justice Correspondent, Los Angeles Times

On average, life expectancy in the United States is 78.7 years. Yet more than a third of Americans want to delay their inevitable deaths and live to be least 120, or even older.

That's just one of the findings from an unusual new survey the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project released on Tuesday.

The nonpartisan research group, based in Washington, D.C., typically polls on religious affiliation, trends and religious peoples' views when it comes to political and social issues, such as gay rights, abortion and marriage. But in its latest survey, inspired by what its researchers said are increasingly common discussions among scientists and bioethicists on medical advances that could potentially, radically extend the human life span, Pew polled Americans about their views on postponing aging and death.

The survey -- which asked questions about how long Americans want to live, the ethics of extending their lives through medical technology and the effect they believe such changes in life span would have on society -- broke down the results by age, race, ethnicity, gender, religion and political affiliation. It also compared views on life extension to views on the morality of the death penalty and abortion.

Overall, a majority (56 percent) of adults said they would not undergo treatments to slow aging in order to live to be 120 or older. But more than two-thirds said they thought most other people would. By similar margins, people also said such longer life spans would strain the nation's resources and be an option only for the wealthy.

When asked how long they want to live, the majority of Americans gave an age that's longer than the average: More than two-thirds responded with an age between 79 and 100. The median ideal life span? Ninety years.

"Who hasn't thought of their own mortality? Who hasn't wondered about living longer?" said David Masci, a senior researcher with Pew. "For the first time in human history, we may be at the threshold of an era when we can actually do something about putting off death," he said, explaining the reasoning behind the survey, which polled 2,012 adults between March and April with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Relative to other fields, the science of anti-aging and radical life extension is slim and contested; but through experiments in recent years on rodents and micro-organisms such as yeast, biologists have tested several methods that have proven somewhat effective at slowing down the aging process, including hormone treatments, natural or drug-induced calorie restriction (otherwise known as "starvation diets") and genetic therapies. None of these methods been proven to work in humans, but Masci said Pew "has always been interested in emerging issues" and "looking at the future." As a loose analogy, he pointed to the Pew's polls on same-sex marriage, which began in 1996, seven years before Massachusetts became the first state to legalize it.

Over the decades, the human life span has steadily increased, and the number of elderly Americans continues to grow. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2050, about 1 in 5 Americans will be 65 or older and at least 400,000 will be 100 or older.

Pew found that a broad majority of Americans are not worried about such trends. Nearly 9 in 10 of those surveyed said that having more elderly people is either good for society or doesn't make a big difference.

About 7 in 10 people said that by 2050, there will be a cure for most kinds of cancer and that artificial arms and legs will work better than natural ones. Regarding medical technologies available today to extend life, from drugs for debilitating diseases to surgical technologies and implants, most see such advances as good (63 percent) as opposed to interfering with nature (32 percent).

Just a small number of Americans, about 7 percent, told pollsters they had heard of or read a lot about technologies to radically postpone death, while most people said they knew a little to nothing about them. A slim majority (51 percent) also said life extension treatments would be bad for society. Nearly three-quarters of Americans said the chance of the average American living to be at least 120 would either probably not or definitely not happen by 2050.

"The hypothetical nature of this made crafting the poll hard. You want to make sure people understand what you're talking about, but you don't want to explain too much because you may start directing their answer," said Masci. "But it was clear that scientists and people who think about the future are focusing on this, and we are already having plenty of discussions on aging in America and what it's going to mean for our society. So it was interesting to measure the views in this particular survey."

Masci said that while Americans broadly disagreed on anti-aging technology and radical life extension, the differences among most demographic groups aside from age, race and ethnicity were slim. Blacks and Hispanics were more likely than whites to see life extension as good thing, as were younger people as compared to those who were 50 and older. The statistical differences in responses between men and women were slim, as were differences broken down by education and income levels. People who make less money and were less educated were somewhat more likely to say life extension is good.

When it comes to religion, black Protestants (54 percent) were most likely to say radical life extension is a good thing, while white evangelical Protestants (34 percent) and white Catholics (31 percent) were significantly less likely to say the same. Hispanic Catholics (44 percent) -- and a similar percent of the religiously unaffiliated -- were in favor of life extension, whereas white Catholics were less enthusiastic. Around 4 in 10 white mainline Protestants said extending human life to 120 or beyond would be good. An accompanying Pew report released Tuesday found that of 18 major religious groups in the U.S., none has an official position on life extension, though views on immortality among religious leaders are mixed.

"Many standard measures of religious beliefs and practices, including belief in God and frequency of attendance at religious services, are related to views on life extension only weakly, if at all," the survey report added. "Nor is there a strong relationship in the survey between the gender, education or political party identification of respondents and what they say about longer human life spans."

Pew also found that people who believe that abortion is morally wrong were just as likely as the general public to personally want treatments to extend their life span to age 120 or older. But researchers did find that views on the death penalty related to views on extending life. People who are against the death penalty are more likely to want to extend their own lives and to say longer life spans would be good for society.

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