People Want the Better End of What Exists, But More Than That Isn't Within Their Horizons

For the species defined by the fact that we create change, humans are surprisingly conservative. Ask anyone what they want and in the vast majority of cases you'll hear a story involving the better end of what exists: they want to be as rich as their well-off neighbors, or live as long as the older folk who do so in good health. Ambition and vision, to see how to make new options that don't yet exist, and to want to put in the work to make it happen, are in desperately short supply.

Yet still there is enormously rapid progress in creating new technologies, new options, new bounds of wealth and choice and, yes, greater longevity. The people who today tell you that they only want to live a little beyond the present median human life span will almost certainly be lining up to take advantage of rejuvenation biotechnologies that enable a person to live for centuries, when such things are available, but they won't do anything to help the development of those technologies. Yet for rejuvenation of the old and the defeat of age-related disease to arrive within our lifetimes, many of these same people must decide to help, to understand the possibilities, to support the research. It's a challenge.

The survey, conducted from March 21 to April 8, 2013, among a nationally representative sample of 2,012 adults, examines public attitudes about aging, health care, personal life satisfaction, possible medical advances (including radical life extension) and other bioethical issues. The telephone survey was carried out on cell phones and landlines, in all 50 states, with an overall margin of error for the full sample of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Asked how long they would like to live, more than two-thirds (69%) cite an age between 79 and 100. The median ideal life span is 90 years - about 11 years longer than the current average U.S. life expectancy, which is 78.7 years. The public also is optimistic that some scientific breakthroughs will occur in the next few decades. For example, about seven-in-ten Americans think that by the year 2050, there will be a cure for most forms of cancer (69%) and that artificial arms and legs will perform better than natural ones (71%). And, on balance, the public tends to view medical advances that prolong life as generally good (63%) rather than as interfering with the natural cycle of life (32%). About half (54%) agree with the statement that "medical treatments these days are worth the costs because they allow people to live longer and better-quality lives," but 41% disagree, saying medical treatments these days "often create as many problems as they solve."

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. At this early stage, public reaction to the idea of radical life extension is both ambivalent and skeptical. Asked about the consequences for society if new medical treatments could "slow the aging process and allow the average person to live decades longer, to at least 120 years old," about half of U.S. adults (51%) say the treatments would be a bad thing for society, while 41% say they would be a good thing.