For those of us who immediately understand, at first recognition, that the opportunity to live a longer life in good health would be a fantastic thing, and in fact so wondrous that we should jump up and do something to make it happen, it is a continual puzzle that we find ourselves in a minority. How is it that we live in a world in which the majority simply doesn't care, or if prompted on the topic, declares their desire to age, suffer, and die on the present schedule? After a few years of this, one might be forgiven for thinking that we are just not very good at advocacy. But given a second consideration, we might ask why we should have to be good at advocacy at all in this situation. Isn't more good health and vigor, and an absence of horrible, debilitating age-related disease, an obvious and unalloyed good? Isn't the whole point of medicine to defeat disease and prolong health? Isn't it the case that all of these people in favor of aging and age-related death nonetheless go out and visit the doctor when they get ill, while supporting research into treatments for cancer and other age-related diseases? I don't think that we are the irrational ones in this picture.
After going on fifteen years of writing on this topic, I don't have much more of an idea than I did when I started as to why greater human longevity isn't an obvious and highly important goal for everyone. The same questions and theories back then are still here today, and there is still little data to pin down their accuracy: fear of frailty, of overpopulation, of any change, even positive, and so forth. Since it was an immediate and evident revelation for me, rather than a gradual conversion, perhaps I am not the right person to achieve that understanding. I am, however, pleased to see that despite the challenges our community of iconoclasts, heretics, revolutionaries, and rational thinkers on the subject of longevity science is greatly expanded these days. More of these folk than ever are writing and persuading, both inside and outside the scientific community. We have progressed and grown as a community, alongside progress in the state of the science.
For today, I see that the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation has set up a blog in order to help bring spread our message to new audiences. As noted by the author here, the best evidence so far suggests that the fear of being old and decrepit for longer as a result of life extension therapies is the most important factor in public opposition to greater longevity, despite the fact that scientists and advocates have repeatedly disclaimed this as a goal, and that many have noted that such an outcome is implausible to achieve even if someone was trying. On the one hand that suggests that it is simple ignorance that might be dispelled, but on the other it seems very resistant to the efforts already made, over and again, by near every public figure involved in the aging research community.
Most advocates of life extension report facing resistance to the idea of increased lifespans by medical means when trying to disseminate this idea among general public. Resistance manifests itself in many forms, ranging from concerns such as overpopulation to concerns about unequal access to life extending treatments. But the most unexpected thing is probably that people often don't want an increased lifespan at all. Surveys in different countries show, that when people are asked "how long would you like to live?", they often give a number equal to or slightly higher than the current life expectancy in a given country. But wait ... Isn't extending life for more decades a good thing that everyone should strive for? In reality we often do not see enough enthusiasm for the idea in general. So why is this?
It turns out that the reaction of general public to the idea depends on how the message is formulated. When only life extension is offered, without details of how healthy, mentally sound and good-looking an individual could become, people express less support for the idea. But when life extension is proposed as a combination of perfect physical and mental health, it changes the response dramatically, leading to many more people accepting the idea, and also showing support for the development of corresponding medical technologies. It is important to note, that there are also other factors that influence higher support for life extension and related medical innovations, reported by researchers. An interest in science, for example, appears to be the strongest predictor of a positive attitude towards medical interventions to extend life.
In some surveys, where the message did not include a promise of perfect health combined with longevity, males were found to be more likely to support life extension than females. Most likely, this can be explained by different perception of the risks. Males are found to be more likely to take the risks, so they can cope better with the risks emerging from using an innovative technology, when the long-term effects are still unknown and the volume of benefit is not clear. In other studies, however, when healthy life extension (with a "utopian" scenario) was offered, this difference between the sexes did not remain consistent, males and females were equally supportive of life extension technologies. It could be that a positive scenario does not engage the mechanisms of risk avoidance. But then, it means that solely by adding perfect health to life extension in our messages, we can significantly widen the number of our supporters. Studies like this illustrate the importance of analyzing how the nature of the message matters in furthering our cause. The advocates of rejuvenation biotechnology, including research groups and fundraisers for aging biology research, should carefully consider the messages they are using, as some of them are more efficient to encourage an informed and engaging discussion with society about the benefits of bringing aging under medical control.