A new study of about 900 U.S. adults has found that only 33% would use a hypothetical life extension treatment that would allow them “to live forever,” even if it were available today. About 42% said they would not use it, and 25% said they were unsure.
The study, published by University of Texas researchers Michael Barnett and Jessica Helphrey, appeared in the Journal of Aging Studies on April 21.
People are living longer, but how long is enough?
Over the past century, the average life span in the United States rose from 47 years in 1900 to 78.7 years in 2010. And recent scientific breakthroughs may be able to extend human life spans even further, or perhaps (with the emphasis on perhaps) even indefinitely.
Yet there has not been much research into how willing people would be to actually undergo such treatment if it actually existed.
A 2011 study found that 65% of American adults support research into life extension, but that only 35% said they would actually use such technology themselves if it became available. Nonetheless, when another study from 2016 asked about the ideal life span, 80% of respondents chose 120 or beyond, provided the extended life could be lived in good health. Thus, there seem to be some mixed messages regarding what people want when it comes to possible life extension.
Also, the above studies did not examine how differences in age might affect people’s responses. Some researchers have speculated that younger people would be keener to embrace life extension technologies, as a way of delaying aging or even avoiding it completely. On the other hand, older people might be more willing to use such treatments, seeing as they are closer to their impending mortality.
The current study: who wants to live forever?
The 911 participants consisted of three age groups: 593 young adults (aged 18 – 29, average age 20, recruited from a U.S. university), a group of 272 “younger” seniors (average age 72) recruited via senior centers and church groups, and a third group of 46 “older” seniors (average age 88) recruited in the same way.
The researchers asked the participants three questions. One was “If doctors developed a pill that enabled you to live forever at your current age, would you take it?” The possible answers were yes, no, or unsure. The second question was “What is the youngest age at which you would be willing to live forever?” and the third was “What is the oldest age at which you would be willing to live forever?”
They framed the hypothetical treatment as having been developed by doctors, so as to imply that it was legitimate and would likely work. They also made the fictive treatment a pill, to ensure that respondents did not reject the idea due to perceived invasiveness or pain. “We wanted the responders to focus on the outcome of taking the pill,” the authors write, “rather than weighing any potential downsides of treatment.”
Results: are people ready for life extension science?
The overall differences between the three age groups were small. Among young adults, 34% said yes, 40% said no, and 26% were unsure. For the younger seniors, 32% said yes, 43% said no, and 25% were unsure. And among the group of older seniors, 24% said yes, 59% said no, and 17% indicated they were unsure.
Thus, among all three age groups, the most common answer was no, followed by yes, with “unsure” consistently in third place
But the researchers did find a large difference between the three age groups in terms of the youngest and oldest age at which they would be willing to live forever. For young adults, the youngest age at which they would like to “freeze” the aging process and then live forever was 23, and the oldest age was 42.
For the middle group, the youngest desired age to stop aging was 44, and the oldest was 69. And among the oldest seniors, the youngest “freeze” age was 52 and the oldest was 77.
The study also found that men were slightly more willing to take the hypothetical life extension treatment than women. This may be related, the researchers write, to the general knowledge that men have lower life expectancies than women.
Most would prefer to begin their human immortality at their current age
These results confirm past studies showing that young adults generally have more negative attitudes towards aging, and that “death anxiety” is actually highest among young adults and lowest among older adults.
The study also shows that as age increases, the youngest and oldest ages at which one would like to “freeze” the aging process also increase. On average, the youngest adults wanted to live forever at a slightly older age than their current age (more specifically, somewhere between their current age and middle age), while the older adults wanted to live forever at a slightly younger age than their current age (also somewhere between middle age and their current age).
In other words, “young adults indicated (on average) that they would wish to live forever as young adults, whereas older adults indicated that they would like to live forever as middle-aged adults,” as the study says. That is, people seemed to feel that immortality at an age close to their current would be ideal.
Do people even want radical life extension?
The researchers suggest future studies might manipulate different aspects of the proposed life extension treatment, for example by making it expensive, difficult, or painful, or adding uncertainty to the outcome (for example, about how the treatment might influence their physical or mental health).
“History and mythology are replete with quests for the fountain of youth or the secret to immortality,” the authors write. Yet these findings indicate that people may not desire immortality as much as mythology would suggest, or perhaps people just “underestimate how likely they would be to use such a treatment if it were to become real.”
Study: Who wants to live forever? Age cohort differences in attitudes toward life extension
Authors: Michael D. Barnett, Jessica H. Helphrey
Published in: Journal of Aging Studies, Volume 57, 2021
Photo: by Anna Shvets from Pexels