Mt. Vernon Register-News

August 7, 2013

Life beyond 100: Americans divided about extending human lifespan

By Michelle Boorstein
The Washington Post

— Even as new research is making "radical life extension" — living well past 100 — sound more plausible and less like science-fiction, a new poll shows Americans sharply divided on a potential reshaping of mortality.

The report released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center follows a flurry of recent medical and technological investment in anti-aging research, including dramatically lowering caloric intake and machines to replace failing organs.

Fifty-six percent of Americans say they would personally not want treatments that would allow them to live dramatically longer lives, said the Pew report, called "Living to 120 And Beyond." Fifty-one percent believe such long life spans would be bad for society, while 41 percent say they would be good.

Nearly 70 percent of Americans say they would ideally like to live to between 79 and 100. The median desired life-span, the report says, is 90 years — about 11 years longer than the actual current average U.S. life expectancy, which is 78.7 years. Just 9 percent of Americans say they want to live more than 100 years.

Among those focused on the ethical implications of changed concepts of mortality are religious leaders. Yet interestingly the poll shows people's views on a seriously lengthened life don't vary based on whether they believe in God or attend religious services. Perhaps the most striking difference in views is racial and ethnic. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to see radical life extension as a good thing for society.

Fifty-six percent of black Americans say radical life extension would be a good thing for society, compared with 36 percent of whites. African-Americans and Hispanics are also somewhat more inclined to say that they, personally, would want life-extending treatments.

"These findings are consistent with the survey's findings that blacks are especially likely to express a desire to live 100 years or more. And both blacks and Hispanics tend to be more optimistic than whites about the future outlook for their personal lives," Pew said in a statement Tuesday.

Of course people are already living longer, which has had impacts on everything from housing to employment. Pew cites the U.S. Census as saying every six years the average U.S. life span rises by a year. However most of the advancements in average life span have been because of a decrease in the mortality of infants and small children.

Respondents to the poll worry about how longer life spans would drain natural resources and harm the economy. The Pew report included an essay based on interviews with bioethicists called "To Count Our Days: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Radical Life Extension." The report said dramatically expanded life spans "would raise a host of new social, political, economic, environmental, moral and other questions," including on concepts of marriage, parenting and the gap between rich and poor.

It quotes a range of religious leaders on the concept of trying to expand life span indefinitely.

Among them were Pope Benedict, who in 2010 warned against postponing death: "Humanity would become extraordinarily old, [and] there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise."

The Rev. Alistair So, chair of the Episcopal Church's Executive Council Committee on Science, Technology and Faith, told Pew there is nothing in the denomination's teaching against life extension, so long as it doesn't become "the focus of life" and that benefits were available for all.

Pew also quotes Abdulaziz Sachedina, chair of Islamic studies at George Mason University and the author of "Islamic Biomedical Ethics" as saying that striving for immortality would go against Islamic teachings because it would keep Muslims from heaven. "There is a deep-seated belief that death is a blessing," Sachedina says. "We look forward to dying."