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Who wants to live forever?

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There was once a time when people who lived to 100 were such rarities that they were featured on national television. Not so any longer. Thanks to ongoing medical advances, the U.S. Census projects that by the year 2050, there will be more than 400,000 Americans who have reached 100 years or older. 400,000. To put that in perspective, that is bigger than the current population of the nation of Iceland by almost 70,000 people.

But the science of longevity is not stopping, and with developments in areas such as stem-cell research, there is the very real possibility that within the next few decades, we could have at our disposal (if we have the means) medical technology that will increase life expectancy even further, to 120 or beyond. But would you want to? Pew Research ran a telephone survey of some 2,000 adults, asking to speak with the youngest member of the household. Pew hit their respondents with questions related to the prospect of being able to live to 120 or beyond. The results were surprising. When asked if they would take medical treatments that would slow the aging process and let them live to 120, 56%—more than half—said they would not.  Some 65% said that they thought other people would want to live that long, though.

At present, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.7 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In the Pew survey, only 14% of people said they would want to live for 78 years or less. A whopping 69% said they would want to live between 79 and 100 years. Only 8% said they would want to live past 100, and 9% said they didn’t know. So, while most people would like to live longer than what they think is likely, there is a limit to how much more time they want. What gives?

The reasons for this ran the gamut from people not thinking life extension would be worth the cost, to people not thinking that the world needed more population, to some objecting to radical life extension on religious grounds. But the real answer might come from another set of data altogether.

The World Health Organization conducts an annual “Healthy Life Years” study to see not how long people might live in total, but how long they might live before they can expect to have their lives compromised by a major illness or disability. And here we see the numbers that make living to 120 seem like less of a good thing. According to the most recent Healthy Years survey, which only covers European nations, the average life expectancy at birth for a European male is 77 years, but only 61.4 of them will be free of activity limitation (AL). That same average male can expect to live for another 10.3 years with moderate AL and 5.4 years after that with severe AL. Females have it even worse, depending on how you look at it. They have a life expectancy at birth of 82.9 years, significantly more than males. But their expected healthy life years are very similar to males, at only 62.1. Life with moderate AL is another 13.7 years, followed by 7 years of severe AL.

With numbers like this, the prospect of living to 120 seems less like a gift and more like a burden when 40 of those years means being unable to enjoy much of what life has to offer. A lot of the life industry’s marketing efforts right now are focused on educating consumers on longevity risk: Whether by luck or by medicine, they might live well past their savings. And while that prospect is a chilling one, it could very well be trumped by something the industry isn’t expecting: Even if something were to come along to let us all live longer lives, unless that thing also allowed us to live longer healthier lives, it looks like a lot of people might opt out.

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