Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
A long life sounds great, but living much radically longer than our current life expectancy isn't what most Americans really want, according to a Pew Research Center survey out today.
More than two-thirds (69%) of a nationally representative sample of 2,012 adults 18 and older say they'd like to live to somewhere between 79 and 100; the median ideal age is 90. That's about 11 years longer than the current U.S. average of 78.7 years (81 for women, 76.2 for men).
But when asked about potential medical treatments that would slow aging and extend life -- possibly to at least 120 -- the respondents aren't as convinced: 56% say they would personally not want such treatments, while 38% would.
"There's really so little information about this kind of topic," says the study's lead author, Cary Funk, a Pew researcher. "We're talking about something that would slow or repair the aging process and let people live decades longer, beyond the limits of what's thought of as human life expectancy."
Scientific breakthroughs in biotechnology and other fields may in the future delay aging and increase longevity. But the survey found just 7% of respondents say they have heard or read "a lot" about such medical advances and 38% have heard or read "a little." More than half (54%) say they knew "nothing" about the issue prior to the survey.
Sociologist Karla Erickson of Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, wasn't involved in the Pew report, but she says the conflict between those who would want such treatments and those who wouldn't was evident in researching her book How We Die Now, out next month. She surveyed about 100 individuals ages 56-102 who lived in an elder community in the Midwest. Most lived independently; others lived at an on-site care facility.
"We have all these choices that previous generations haven't had -- like whether or not to pursue treatment, whether or not to pursue life-extending measures," she says. "They've witnessed others and they have a lot of ambivalence about whether it's worth it. The people I talked to were really comfortable saying 'I wish my friend had not done it.' Now they believe one should be judicious about what medical procedures to embrace, but they worry when they get to the end, (if) they will go down fighting and pursue every possible life extension."
Of those Pew surveyed, 63% say "medical advances that prolong life are generally good because they allow people to live longer." But almost one-third (32%) say medical advances are bad because "they interfere with the natural cycle of life." Just over half (54%) believe that "medical treatments these days are worth the costs because they allow people to live longer and better quality lives," while 41% say that these treatments "often create as many problems as they solve."
Pew also found that Americans are generally optimistic.
-- 81% are satisfied with the way things are going in their lives;
-- 56% expect that 10 years from now their lives will be even better or about the same;
-- 57% say they either do not worry "too much" or do not worry "at all" about outliving their money following retirement.
Such findings are similar to results released last week in a survey of 1,007 seniors ages 60 and older, also conducted by phone last spring. That survey, by the National Council on Aging and UnitedHealthcare in partnership with USA TODAY, found 51% of seniors expect their quality of life to stay about the same during the next five to 10 years, while 21% expect it to get better. However, 53% of those seniors say they are either "very" or "somewhat concerned" whether their savings and income will last the rest of their lives.