How Long Do You Want to Live?

Attentive readers will recall that I'm rather interested, as a human whose body stubbornly continues to age, in the prospect that science will one day enable us to extend our lives far beyond what is possible today. Throwing the "immortality" word around tends to turn people off, since it sounds so absurd (after all, nothing lives forever, not even our sun), but what about just living a whole lot longer than most of us expect to even when we're being optimistic? Is that something you'd want?

My answer has always been, "Of course—are you kidding?" If advancements in medicine and technology can dramatically extend our lives—and assuming that we don't end up like Tithonus, the figure from Greek mythology who was granted eternal life but not eternal youth, so lived forever in a tortuous ever-increasing decrepitude—then I'm all for it. There are strong arguments that living for an extra 50 or 100 years (or more) might be great for you as an individual, but bad for society as a whole, but I've been surprised as I've asked friends and relatives this question over the last few years that most of them say that getting 80 or 90 years on Earth is just fine with them. And now, the good folks at the Pew Research Religion and Life Project have asked a representative sample of Americans the question (or at least one form of the question), and they've gotten similar answers. Interestingly enough, most people think that while they don't want to live past 120, they think most other people disagree:

And when you ask them how long they'd like to live, instead of saying "Oh, 1,500 years or so," people's ambitions are much more modest. Granted, people answer that question realistically and not by considering their sci-fi fantasies, but nevertheless: "Asked how long they would like to live, more than two thirds (69 percent) cite an age between 79 and 100. The median ideal life span is 90 years—about 11 years longer than the current average U.S. life expectancy, which is 78.7 years"

That life expectancy has increased dramatically in the last century, but that's mostly because we keep doing a better and better job at preventing and treating the things that kill people when they're relatively young. If you were born in the Middle Ages, you'd have a pretty good chance of dying from some infection as an infant or contracting some disease as a young person that today we can easily take care of without the use of leeches and trepanning. Modern medicine has allowed us to live to the point where we can die of the diseases of old age, like heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's. But the upper limit of human life span—around 120—hasn't budged in pretty much forever, and it's still reached by only a few people who seem blessed with some spectacular combination of genetics and luck.

Anyhow, the Pew poll shows that Americans are quite wary about the possibility of people living substantially longer; among their concerns is that whatever treatments produced the longevity would only be available to the wealthy. That's entirely possible, even likely, but you could also argue, as Sonia Arrison does, that "As breakthrough longevity technologies become available, the rich will certainly be the first to partake; they are the ones who will pay most of the early fixed costs for everything from flat-screen TVs to experimental medical treatments. Eventually, these life-extenders will reach everyone." Maybe it'll depend on how good your insurance is. But if the experience with Viagra is any indication, the question "Will insurance cover this?" can be answered easily by asking, "Do the old rich guys who run insurance companies want this?" And you bet they will.

But all of this is a ways off, so in the meantime, if I were you I'd stick with eating right and exercising.

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