A Few More Thoughts on Public Disinterest in Living Longer

When it comes to public discussion of extending healthy life spans through medical science, the tide is slowly turning. As a serious scientific goal, this used to be mocked when it was ever discussed at all. Now healthy life extension is discussed both seriously and more often. But it is still the case that the majority of the public puts little thought into the intersection of aging and progress in medicine, and when pushed for an opinion express disinterest in living longer. This is obviously problematic for those of us who do see the possibilities in longevity science: radical life extension could be achieved within our lifetimes given enough funding and support, but that support is slow in arriving.

There are a range of opinions as to why the broader public doesn't leap on the idea of living longer, healthier lives with great enthusiasm and approval. It is somewhat odd when seen from a logical perspective as, after all, there is widespread grassroots support for the development of better treatments for age-related diseases. The average person on the street thinks that progress is being made on the prevention and cure of heart disease, cancer, and so on, and that this is a good thing. But ask them about aging and extended life and you'll hear that nothing should be done, and they are set to die on the same schedule as their parents.

Most advocates for the development of rejuvenation therapies think that the biggest issue is that most people still think that living longer will mean being older for longer rather than being younger for longer - that it will mean more misery and pain and increasing decrepitude. Yet this has never been the message propagated by the scientific community: scientists are working on means to make people younger for longer, or to reverse aging so as to restore youthful vigor and capabilities to the old, and have always presented their research in terms of health and youth. "Older for longer" is a myth, and probably not even something that could be achieved at all, were someone foolish enough to try, but it persists nonetheless.

Why We Should Look Forward To Living To 120 And Beyond

Surprisingly, most people do not want to have their life spans extended. In my opinion, this pessimistic view stems from several factors. First, when forming a conscious and subconscious opinion about life expectancy, most people use as benchmarks their parents' and grandparents' life spans, and the national average. The line of thought is usually: "I am 40, my grandmother lived to 92, my dad is 70, and I heard that the average is about 78, so I should live to somewhere between 80 and 95. But I am not sure if I want to live that long, because my grandmother was very frail in her later years."

These perceptions are fostered by researchers who look at historic trends and project only marginal increases, or even decreases, in future life expectancy. These researchers predict that recent behavioral changes, like high-calorie diets and sedentary lifestyles, as well as pollution and other environmental factors, will outweigh life-extending advances in biomedical sciences. But the past 20 years have demonstrated that those relying on historical trends to make predictions about science and technology are often proven wrong.

People may also believe an extended life span will extend frailty and boredom in old age. But biomedical advances are not all the same. The current paradigm in biomedical research, clinical regulation and healthcare has created a spur of costly procedures that provide only marginal increases late in life. The vast percentage of lifetime healthcare costs today are spent in the last few years of patients' lives, increasing the burden on the economy and society and further contributing to the negative image of life extension. In the near future, however, the focus of biomedicine will shift to extending healthy, productive lives and keeping people young and occupied for as long as possible.

The preventive approaches available today, including improved diet and exercise and more advanced early diagnostics, may have the potential to add 10 to 20 years to our life spans. But future generations will more likely rely on biomedical interventions to prevent the loss of functionality with age and to maintain or even improve their performance on all levels. The lowest-hanging fruit is regenerative medicine, which will likely allow most of the organs in the body to be replaced or rejuvenated.


Most people associated "life extension" with an increased period of time of being "old". They do not think true rejuvenation is possible. Hence, they have no interest in it.

Posted by: Abelard Lindsey at October 25th, 2013 12:28 PM

I am not sure why we should be so interested in widespread support (compared to other ways) - are we expecting that it will become so popular that public money will be directed to it -or- that we see a giant 'crowdfunding' private effort as being the only way of facilitating the type of 'apollo mission' type of infrastructure that may be required (or it may not) -or- that the medical research community will somehow be swayed by the public outcry and mobilize increased interest in non-mainstream ways -or- that angel investors will be struck by the overflow of support so as to pour quick billions forth. All noble goals and approaches, i'm sure. But, as with world hunger, climate change, poverty, already-solved-but-not-distributed 3rd world illnesses, etc., we need not put this forth as some 'absolute good' or 'noble mission' or 'incontrovertible logical undertaking'. It polarizes. It leads to grossly unqualified visions of dystopic outcomes. It is most likely that the small or medium increase in positive interest will be more than outweighed by illogical or otherwise backlash, then leading to a retreat by those positives who want to avoid the drama of the newly-hot politicized issue. Take a page from Elon Musk, electric car breakthrough magician; the asteroid mining people (geez, their kickstarter netted $100,000s in days to finish many fold of that weeks after); space tourism, everything Craig Venter does, cosmetic surgery, etc. It is ok to be secretly passionate about the science, especially to help the world, but it is better to advocate that this is not for everyone but those 'passionate and forward-thinking' individuals that want to continue with their remarkable life, helping the world... and so on. They will come to you. Truly. Blatant public self-righteousness, well-earned or not, is the most potent money-funding issue destabilizer. Even proclaiming it as a public duty will wear thin after awhile. This is why most scientists are not spokespersons for their breakthroughs and why Al Gore was the worst spokesperson for climate change. Unlike selling newspapers - not all attention or constant attention is good attention.

Posted by: Jer at October 25th, 2013 1:43 PM

Far more likely imo is that most people simply get disillusioned and 'tired' of living. Living takes its toll. Their biggest fear I would suggest is that their current political & economic systems are all heavily weighted in favor of sociopaths. Why would anyone sane want that system but with them living 100-200 yrs.

Posted by: Peter at October 27th, 2013 1:17 PM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.