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Public's Views on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension

Posted: August 13, 2013

If new medical treatments could slow the aging process and allow people to live decades longer, to at least 120 years old, would you want to have the treatments? A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that most Americans (56%) say "no"—they, personally, would not want treatments to enable dramatically longer lives. But roughly two-thirds (68%) think that most other people would choose to live to 120 and beyond.

The survey explores the public's attitudes toward aging, medical advances and what some biomedical researchers call "radical life extension"—the possibility that scientific breakthroughs someday could allow people to live much longer than is possible today. Overall, more Americans think dramatically longer life spans would be bad (51%) than good (41%) for society.

Asked how long they ideally would like to live, more than two-thirds of United States adults (69%) cite an age between 79 and 100. The median desired life span of survey respondents is 90 years—about 11 years longer than the current average United States life expectancy, which is 78.7 years. Just 9% of Americans say they want to live more than 100 years.

"On the one hand, most Americans would like to live beyond today's average life expectancy," says Cary Funk, the survey's principal researcher. "But on the other hand, and perhaps surprisingly, a majority of Americans say they would not choose to undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and live decades longer—to 120 or more."

Because most Americans say they have heard little or nothing about the possibility of radically extended lifetimes, and because the scientific breakthroughs are far from certain, the wording of the survey questions focus on the result—much longer life spans—and are deliberately vague about how this would be achieved or how healthy an average person would be at 120 and beyond.