There is Widespread Desire for Extended Longevity, Provided it Brings More Healthy, Youthful Years

There is a prevailing public disinterest in medical research to extend healthy life. The open access survey linked here is an attempt to understand which of the present widespread beliefs on medicine, aging, and longevity is a more important determinant of this public disinterest. Note that the paper is only available in PDF format at the moment. Also note that this is a project of the Health Extension folk in the Bay Area - so good for them for stepping up, doing the work, and getting it published.

The longevity science community has long known that the public appears indifferent or even hostile to the prospect of treating aging and extending healthy life spans. I and others believe this goes a long way towards explaining why the funding situation for aging research is particularly bad, even for a world in which near all useful medical research is poorly funded and given little attention by people outside the scientific community. There are a number of schools of thought as to why people don't appear to want to live longer, which include the mistaken belief that only wealthy people would benefit from longevity assurance therapies, the mistaken belief that overpopulation and dystopia would result, and the mistaken belief that greater longevity would mean more years of being ill, frail, and decrepit. There is also the role of conformity to the norm to consider, where the norm is what happened to your parents and grandparents, and the open question of why all of these widespread erroneous beliefs persist though year after year of numerous scientists telling the public that they are incorrect.

I'm sure many long-time readers here will not be surprised to find that the survey linked below identified the primary problem as being the fear of frailty, the unfounded assumption that being older as a result of new medical treatments must mean being having more of the characteristics of people who are presently old. Perhaps it is that many people see all medicine as equal, and make no practical distinction between (a) the present patching over of age-related illness without addressing its causes, an approach that allows survivors to struggle on, to age and decline some more and die later rather than die sooner, and (b) a future treatment that reverses and repairs some of the causes of aging and thus postpones or reverses all age-related disease and decline. This is one of the challenges of standing at the point at which the approach to aging and medicine is fundamentally changing: the old common wisdom is not longer correct, and the expectations among researchers for the near future are not yet widely appreciated.

Great desire for extended life and health amongst the American public

Recent advances in aging research and regenerative medicine may soon translate into dramatically increased human lifespans. But does the American public want to live longer? Popular press argues the answer is no, e.g. a recent survey on desired lifespan reported in the New York Times found 60% of respondents voted for the shortest option, an 80 year lifespan, while fewer than 1% opted for an unlimited lifespan. Here, we show that negative attitudes to longer lives are a consequence of erroneously equating extended life with an extended period of frailty. When we stipulated continued health to the original survey question, responses dramatically favored longer life: only 20% wish to die at age 85, while 42% want an unlimited lifespan. Since funding for aging research depends on its perceived value, better science communication is needed to align public policy with public interests.

We surveyed 1000 individuals about how long they wished to live (to age 85, 120, 150, or indefinitely), under 3 scenarios: (1) sustained mental and physical youthfulness, (2) mental youthfulness only, (3) physical youthfulness only. While responses to the two partial youthfulness conditions recapitulated the results of previous surveys - i.e., most responders (65.3%) wished to live to age 85 only - under scenario (1) the pattern of responses was completely different. When guaranteed mental and physical health, 797 of 1000 people wanted to live to 120 or longer, and 53.1% of the 797 desired unlimited life spans. Furthermore, 70.1% of the people who responded 85 to scenario (2) or (3) changed their answer to 120 or longer in scenario (1). Full survey response data are publicly available. We also reproduced our primary finding - that most people wish to live far longer than the average human lifespan so long as they stay healthy - using Google Surveys. In this replication cohort of 1500 respondents, we found that 74.4% wished to live to 120 or longer if health was guaranteed, but only 57.4% wished to live that long if it wasn't. Full survey data and results are publicly available in an interactive browsable format.

The public wants to live long, and live healthy. Human supercentenarians give some of the best evidence for the possibility of increased healthspan and healthy aging, or compression of morbidity. Making healthy aging a reality for the rest of the population will be scientifically challenging. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly more necessary: chronic age-related diseases account for 75% of Medicare spending, and these numbers are projected to rise as baby boomers age. The National Institute on Aging currently receives less than 1% of the National Institutes of Health's overall annual budget, or less than 0.05% of annual Medicare spending; this is a misallocation of resources. There is a growing demand for more awareness and more funding for basic aging research, and new initiatives such as the Healthspan Campaign and the trans-NIH Geroscience Interest Group are helping lead the way forward. Investing in scientific research and development that targets aging, the process underlying multiple chronic diseases, can offer uniquely high potential returns.


This is only somewhat related, but I think use of the phrase "increased healthspan" or such like as either a description or sales point of the goal of regenerative/anti-aging medicine is lost on the average person. I think the term "youthspan" has much better marketing and health implications than "healthspan" ever will.

Posted by: Robert at January 1st, 2016 7:01 PM

"The public wants to live long, and live healthy. Human supercentenarians give some of the best evidence for the possibility of increased healthspan and healthy aging, or compression of morbidity."

It's not surprising that still 20% of people want to die at 85, since these guys use misleading terms like "healthy aging" and their best offer is being biologically 60 or 65 in an extended lifespan.

Posted by: Antonio at January 2nd, 2016 5:21 AM

Though I can only speculate:
It would seem to me that the number of people wishing to extend their lifespans is likely, highly correlated to the number of people who are currently enjoying their society's quality AND their regular lifespans in the academic definitions of happiness, including emotional well-being, etc. Therefore, it would seem reasonable as the world becomes a more desirable place to live, so will the desire to invest in, be a part of, and create the infrastructure/culture for such a medical development breakthrough.

Posted by: Jer at January 2nd, 2016 10:03 AM

I think most of them are lying, Jer (even to themselves). See for example any news report of a disaster (flood, earthquake, whatever), when they interview the survivors. All people, young and old, want to live and are afraid of death.

Posted by: Antonio at January 3rd, 2016 12:23 AM

The phrasing of the question needs more thought.
Of coarse when asked do you want to 120. What comes to mind is our elderly (70, 80,yrs) loved one in hospital care. frightened,humiliated, half conscious,suffering, leaking grey heap of someone we love. the terrified say for goodness sake no!!!
Maybe a better question. If you felt strong, agile, and had clarity of mind at 120 years
would you want to live one more year? or something like that! : )

Posted by: Gary Evans at January 3rd, 2016 10:42 AM

IMO the Tithonus Error is still the number one thing standing in the way of people adopting life extension. That and the idea that it's not possible. Slay those two ideas and many more people will naturally become supporters.

Posted by: KC at January 5th, 2016 4:23 PM
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