With falling birthrates and rising life expectancies, the U.S. population is rapidly aging. By 2050, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections, one-in-five Americans will be 65 or older, and at least 400,000 will be 100 or older. Some futurists think even more radical changes are coming, including medical treatments that could slow, stop or reverse the aging process and allow humans to remain healthy and productive to the age of 120 or more. The possibility that extraordinary life spans could become ordinary life spans no longer seems far-fetched. A recent issue of National Geographic magazine, for example, carried a picture of a baby on its cover with the headline: “This Baby Will Live To Be 120.”
Yet many Americans do not look happily on the prospect of living much longer lives. They see peril as well as promise in biomedical advances, and more think it would be a bad thing than a good thing for society if people lived decades longer than is possible today, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Asked whether they, personally, would choose to undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and live to be 120 or more, a majority of U.S. adults (56%) say “no.” But roughly two-thirds (68%) think that most other people would. And by similarly large margins, they expect that radically longer life spans would strain the country’s natural resources and be available only to the wealthy.
There is, at present, no method of slowing the aging process and extending average life expectancies to 120 years or more. But research aimed at unlocking the secrets of aging is under way at universities and corporate labs, and religious leaders, bioethicists and philosophers have begun to think about the morality of radical life extension, according to two accompanying reports released by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project in conjunction with the new survey.
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.
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