Americans sharply divided about dramatically extending human lifespan, poll finds

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 what it means to age.

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 implanting machines to replace failing organs.

Experts’ views range widely on how close human beings are to achieving super-long life spans. But there is unquestionably a new focus on delaying aging, whereas until now the average life span had been getting longer because of improved infant and child health.

But 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 lifespans 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.

Debate has been bubbling up among bioethicists, religious figures and others about potential moral questions raised by the prospect of “radical life extension.” In 2010 Pope Benedict preached on the dangers of denying death its role.

“What would it really be like if we were to succeed, perhaps not in excluding death totally, but in postponing it indefinitely, in reaching an age of several hundred years? Would that be a good thing? Humanity would become extraordinarily old, there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise, if anything a condemnation,” he said.

Interestingly, the Pew 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.

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 than they once did, which affects everything from housing to employment. Pew cites the U.S. Census as saying that every six years the average U.S. life span rises by a year.

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.” 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, the report said.

Jeffrey Bishop, a moral philosopher who focuses on health care ethics at Saint Louis University – a Catholic school – said some read ancient Greek mythology as a rebuke to immortality.

“The reason the gods were so capricious was because they were bored. It was the same damn old thing over and over. It’s [due to] the fact that we die that we’re forced to evaluate things, to give them value,” he said.

The “greatest good” in Christianity, he said, is to be in communion with God. “Anything that distracts from that is sinful,” such as making our focus indefinite life, he said. With indefinitely prolonged lives, “I don’t know how we’d begin to evaluate good. Because for humans at least the way we have defined good is the threat of its loss.”

Research on anti-aging approaches to increased life expectancy has had mixed results, said Marie A. Bernard, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging at NIH.

Among the most promising, she said, are calorie restriction, a diet that is lower in calories than a normal diet but includes all needed nutrients; rapamycin, a compound that helps transplant patients accept new organs and could increase longevity; and metformin, a diabetes medication that may also slow the aging process.

Testing on these has yielded mixed results, she said, adding, “Right now, the possibility that we’re going to extend people to 120 to 150 years is not a reality that we’re facing.”

But Nigel Cameron, president of the D.C.-based Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, thinks humans have a 1-in-4 chance of breaking the 120-year-old barrier in the next few decades. Cameron said Pew’s wording about “life extension” is prejudicial because it implies humans’ old ages will simply be extended – rather than the possibility that their bodies will remain 30- or 40-something for decades.

Aubrey de Grey, chief science officer at SENS Research Foundation, a California-based biomedical research charity that focuses on preventing the ill health of old age, said he expects the human lifespan to reach 110 to 150 in the next 20 to 25 years.

Thanks to advances in stem cell therapy as well as preliminary research into lesser-known therapies, such as an enzyme that breaks down toxic molecules responsible for cardiovascular disease, middle-aged people could be moved back to a point where “they could be biologically 60 again until they’re chronologically 90,” he said.

De Grey called the Pew report “very depressing” — a sign that many people are unaware of life extension research and its implications. For example, he said it costs more to care for people suffering from aging-related illnesses than it does to provide anti-aging therapies.

A bioethicist, Cameron said he has shifted his focus from religious to secular communities on this topic.

“There is hardly any serious conversation among religious communities on this because they are so blinkered on the future, they are the least attuned to the significance of technological change. If you’re looking for lively talk on bioethics, the last place you’ll go is a church or synagogue. A secular audience is far more likely to be engaged on the ethical and social impact,” he said.

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

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.”