I know a woman who is alive to see her great-great-great-great-great grandson. She’s 150 years old, which means she was born during the American Civil War. She had cancer in her early hundreds, but the doctors cured it and she’s been puttering along ever since. In her century and a half she’s seen a lot of change. The world when she was born wouldn’t recognize the world she’s living in today.
Okay, so that’s not true. There’s no 150 year old woman. Did you believe me?
But a lot of people think that such a woman may not be science fiction. They think some people who are alive today will live to be that old. Just look at this recent article about a 123 year old Bolivian.
A quarter of Americans think it’s likely that the average life expectancy in 2050 will be 150 years. National Geographic went so far as to run a cover story in May with the headline “This Baby Will Live to be 120.” Between genetic modification, medical technology and health awareness, some people — including some scientists — claim they’re mapping the way to the fountain of youth.
A new Pew study looks at what Americans think of the idea of extreme longevity or what the survey calls “radical life extension.” The finding I found most interesting is the difference between what people want for themselves and what they think others want. Get this: 56 percent of Americans say they would not want to undergo treatments that would allow them to live to be 150 years old (only 38 percent would want such treatment). However, more than two-thirds of Americans believe that most other people would want age slowing treatment.
So, the fact is that most people alive today have no desire to live to be 150 (or, at least, don’t want treatment to make it happen), but they assume that others do.
In reality, the ideal life span for most Americans is between 79-100, even given the opportunity to live longer.
Millennials choose the shortest ideal life span (maybe it’s because we still have the farthest to go, or because we see the condition of the elderly, or we’re just disillusioned with this whole life thing). The median ideal life span for people my age is 85. Our parents and grandparents tend to want to live a bit longer, about 90 years.
Apparently, religious beliefs correlate only weakly with our desire for long life. (Christians may want “eternal life”, but we don’t want it for this life.) However, one religious difference did stick out to me. When asked if “radical life extension would be a good thing for society,” minority religious denominations said yes significantly more than their white peers. About 15 percent more black Protestants think extreme long life would be good for society than white Protestants, and 13 percent more hispanic Catholics believe it than white Catholics.
Here’s one other graph from the study that gets at what such radical life extension treatments — in our perception — would be like in reality.
* * *
Mortality is one of the chief fears of humanity. People are afraid of death. We go to great lengths to postpone it. A century ago, the life expectancy of an American was about 50 years. Today, it’s closer to 80.
I’m not sure living to be 150 is that appealing, especially if I would feel 150. If technology and nutrition allowed me to feel youthful and healthy, that’s a different story, but I wouldn’t want to feel old for the last 80 years of my life.
As a Christian, I can’t think of any biblical reason why radical life extension is ethically wrong — granted, I’m sure different religious camps will find verses to support their views, whatever they are, and use them to say, “This is the Christian position!” but nothing jumps out at me. If God grants us a way to live longer, happier lives, we should count that a blessing.
On the other hand, death is the natural and just result of our sinfulness, and we should not pretend we can escape it ourselves. If delaying death increases suffering, it’d be hard to justify it. Also, if it stunts creativity, leads to an unwillingness to work, ostracizes youth or promotes some vainglorious human hubris — an arrogance that supposes we can rely on ourselves and not God — we would need to think twice.