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

Posted: August 13, 2013

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These are among the key findings of a new, nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. The survey was conducted March 21-April 8, 2013, on cell phones and landlines, among a nationally representative sample of 2,012 adults. The overall margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Following are other key findings.

  • Most Americans have heard little or nothing about biomedical advances that may hold the potential to extend life by decades. Only 7% of respondents say they have heard or read a lot about the possibility that new medical treatments could, in the future, allow people to live much longer; 38% say they have heard a little about this possibility, and about half (54%) have heard nothing about radical life extension prior to taking the survey. Those who have heard at least a little about radical life extension are closely divided in their views: 46% say such treatments would be a good thing for society, and 47% say they would be a bad thing. Those who have heard nothing about it prior to the survey interview are more inclined to see radical life extension as a bad thing (56%) than a good thing (38%) for society.
  • There are some differences among religious groups when it comes to attitudes about medical treatments that would slow the aging process and extend life by decades. Black Protestants are among the most likely to say radical life extension would be a good thing for society (54%). By contrast, fewer white evangelical Protestants (34%) and white Catholics (31%) say the same. Hispanic Catholics (44%) are more likely than white Catholics (31%) to think these treatments would be a good thing for society.
  • The differences among religious groups are in keeping with the overall patterns by race and ethnicity. Regardless of religious affiliation, blacks (56%) and Hispanics (48%) are more likely than whites (36%) to see radical life extension as a good thing for society. They 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.
  • The survey contains a number of null findings that may be surprising. Many standard measures of religious belief and practice, including belief in God and frequency of attendance at religious services, are related to views on radical life extension only weakly, if at all. There also is not a strong relationship in the survey between the gender, education level, political party identification or current health of respondents and what they say about longer human life spans.

There is, at present, no method of slowing the aging process and extending the average life expectancy to 120 years or more. But research aimed at unlocking the secrets of aging is underway at universities and corporate labs, and religious leaders, bioethicists and philosophers have begun to think about the morality of radical life extension. Together with the survey results, Pew Research is releasing two accompanying reports. "To Count Our Days: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Radical Life Extension" presents an overview of the scientific research and the emerging ethical debate. "Religious Leaders' Views on Radical Life Extension" describes how some clergy, bioethicists, theologians and other scholars think their religious traditions might approach the issue.

The full report, background essay and views of religious leaders, along with an interactive, are available on the Religion & Public Life Project's website. Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. Its Religion & Public Life Project seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.