Some of the nation's brightest minds have declared an all-out war against aging. From Google's campus to university labs to government think tanks, researchers claim that babies born this year should live up to 120 years and that, long before today's infants mature, some readily achievable changes in health care will have produced millions of sharp, active and healthy centenarians.
There's just one problem: It's not entirely clear that most Americans want to live to 120 — or much past 90, for that matter.
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The Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project asked more than 2,000 U.S. adults about their desire to live longer, as well as their hopes for enhanced life expectancy and medical services.
Only 38 percent of respondents said they would be willing to undergo treatments to extend their lives to 120 or beyond; 56 percent said they would not, although two-thirds said they believed most other people would. Most Americans, though, do expect to live longer than the current average U.S. life expectancy of 79, according to Pew. Asked how long they thought they would live, 69 percent stated an age between 79 and 100, with 90 being the median.
In general, respondents to the Pew survey were hopeful about medical advances to address cancer and other potentially fatal conditions. But they were deeply skeptical about life extension research. Three out of four adults said they doubted that people would routinely live to 120 by 2050. Slightly more than half (51 percent) said that development would be "bad for society;" 41 percent said it would be a good thing. Two-thirds of respondents said they imagined such advances would mostly benefit the wealthy and only a quarter expect that treatments would be properly tested before being released to the public.
Plowing Forward to Extend Life
Ignoring such fears, Google announced last month it would make a significant investment in Calico, the California Life Company, to advance research into new approaches for extending life. "With some longer term, moonshot thinking around health care and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives," CEO Larry Page said when the announcement was made.
Details on the exact projects Calico will take on are scarce, but its initial partners indicate the focus will be on biotechnology. Page himself has suggested that Calico will focus more on life extension than disease fighting. He stirred a good deal of attention recently with a seemingly off-handed comment to Time magazine. "If you solve cancer, you’d add about three years to people's average life expectancy," he said. "We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that'll totally change the world. But when you really take a step back and look at it, yeah, there are many, many tragic cases of cancer, and it's very, very sad, but in the aggregate, it's not as big an advance as you might think."
In other words, Page and Calico are thinking bigger.
Another widely publicized new study supports Page's strategy of taking on aging, not disease. The report, published this month in the journal HealthAffairs, indicated that investment in research to slow the aging process would deliver substantially greater societal benefits than efforts to overcome individual diseases.
The study's conclusions were based on the premise that by 2030 we will find ways to extend life expectancy for people who successfully reach age 50 by 2.2 years — to 89, from the current 87. According to the study, such modest gains in delaying the pace of aging should produce 11.7 million more healthy Americans over the age of 65 by 2060 than would otherwise be expected. Slowing the pace of aging, according to the report, would also inhibit the onset of age-related diseases, delivering not only longer lives but what scientists call compression of morbidity. The longer we live healthy lives, according to this theory, the less time we'll spend living with illness toward the end of our lives.
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"Delayed aging is about adding healthy life years rather than disabled life years," Dana Goldman, director of the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California and lead author of the study told PBS NewsHour this week. He estimates that progress in this research could save the U.S. $7.1 trillion in Medicare, Medicaid and related expenses over 50 years.
In the near term, though, age-delaying research requires new investment. Goldman has said that investing $71 billion in related projects would be a safe bet, even if there's only a one percent chance of achieving discoveries that will slow aging and its inherent ills. (He emphasizes, however, that he thinks the prospect of success is much greater than one percent.)
(MORE: 7 Life Secrets of Centenarians)
"We've made tremendous progress in increasing life expectancy if you look over the past century," Goldman told NewsHour. "But as a result of that, what we have is a population that's living older and older. That means they're at risk for a number of different diseases. In fact, diseases like Alzheimer's, and to some extent cancer, reflect success in that people are living long enough so that they'll actually be afflicted by these conditions. . . Aging in and of itself is now becoming the most important risk factor."
"Change doesn't happen overnight," Goldman added. "It's not like suddenly everyone lives 15 more years. We're going to come up with research, improve health a little bit and then refine it to make it better. We have an opportunity to figure out how we deal with an aging society over a longer period. I'm optimistic that we're going to get this right."
And yet, millions of us remain skeptical, in large part because we wonder how all this would work. How does a society with five-generation families function? How does an economy with millions of working octogenarians create new opportunities? Page, Goldman and other leading life-extension thinkers envision a nation of healthier seniors living independently on their own wages longer than ever before. The rest of us still have our doubts about whether politics and economics can keep pace with life science.
Until a new way is proven, we still fear aging the same way that many of our parents and grandparents did, with limited savings, onerous caregiving demands on our children and grandchildren, lonely years in nursing homes and other facilities and extended end-of-life care that too often fails to factor in the quality of life.
The Global AgeWatch Index, a study released by the United Nations and HelpAge International just last week, confirms those fears. As life expectancy continues to outpace the birth rate in many parts of the world, by 2050 the Earth, for the first time in history, will house more adults over 60 than children under 15. The report also says nations across the globe are woefully underprepared in terms of health care, residential facilities and economic policy, among other measures.
In the current issue of Publisher's Weekly, Adam Leith Gollner, author of The Book of Immortality, a sweeping and entertaining historical survey of mankind's pursuit of immortality, writes: "Molecular biologists are making important breakthroughs, and perhaps one day those findings will translate into human applications. For now, even if there were a way to extend human life — and there really isn't — most of us wouldn't want it. . . . Instead, we'd opt for what inevitably awaits us, that ultimate grace bestowed upon all humans: the chance to die when our time eventually comes."
"There are no examples of anything immortal ever found by science," Gollner continues. "We should see existence for what it is: composed of as many summers as winters, of both sweetness and tragedy, of beauty pageants as well as degenerative diseases. Why prolong it? We've all been granted a life's time. Ephemeral though it may be, that's all we get. It's a brief, extraordinary moment. Let's make the most of this séjour while it lasts."
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