Most advocates of life extension report facing resistance to the idea of increased lifespans by medical means when trying to disseminate it among the general public. Resistance manifests itself in many forms, ranging from concerns such as overpopulation to concerns about unequal access to life-extending treatments.
However, the most unexpected thing is probably that people often don’t want an increased lifespan at all. Surveys in different countries show that when people are asked “how long would you like to live?”, they often give a number equal to or slightly higher than the current life expectancy in a given country [1-4].
Wait, isn’t extending life by decades something that everyone should strive for? Why do we often see a lack of enthusiasm for the idea in general?
It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it
It turns out that the reaction of general public to the idea depends on how the message is formulated. When only life extension is offered, without any details of how healthy, mentally sound, and good-looking an individual could become, people express less support for the idea.
However, when life extension is proposed as a combination of perfect physical and mental health, it changes the response dramatically, leading to many more people accepting the idea and showing support for the development of corresponding medical technologies.
Here is some relevant data from a recent study.
We surveyed 1000 individuals (through “Ask Your Target Market”) about how long they wished to live (to age 85, 120, 150, or indefinitely), under 3 scenarios: (1) sustained mental and physical youthfulness, (2) mental youthfulness only, (3) physical youthfulness only. While responses to the two partial youthfulness conditions recapitulated the results of previous surveys (Cicirelli, 2011; Kogan et al., 2011; Partridge et al., 2011; Duncan, 2012; Pew Research Center, 2013), i.e., most responders (65.3%) wished to live to age 85 only—under scenario (1) the pattern of responses was completely different. When guaranteed mental and physical health, 797 of 1000 people wanted to live to 120 or longer, and 53.1% of the 797 desired unlimited life spans. Furthermore, 70.1% of the people who responded 85 to scenario (2) or (3) changed their answer to 120 or longer in scenario (1).
The full survey response data is publicly available here.
It is important to note that researchers have also reported other factors that increase support for life extension and related medical innovations. An interest in science, for example, appears to be the strongest predictor of a positive attitude towards medical interventions to extend life.
The fraction of people who changed their answer from 85 to 120 or longer was significantly higher among people with some interest in science (445/622 vs. 13/31, p < 0.001, Fisher’s exact test), and this was the main predictor of changing the answer to favor longer life. Less significant correlations were found with other surveyed variables such as age, health status, and self-esteem. Similar results were recently reported for Canadians (Dragojlovic, 2013): 59% of 1231 respondents wished to live to 120 (the maximum age included in that survey), and science orientation was the strongest predictor of support for life extension.
In surveys in which the message did not include a promise of perfect health combined with longevity, males were found to be more likely to support life extension than females . Most likely, this can be explained by different perceptions of risk.
Males are found to be more likely to take risks , including the risks involved in using an innovative technology of which the long-term effects are still unknown and the actual benefits are not clear.
In other studies, however, when healthy life extension (with a “utopian” scenario) was offered, this difference between the sexes did not remain consistent ; males and females were equally supportive of life extension technologies.
It could be that a positive scenario does not engage the mechanisms of risk avoidance. However, it means that solely by adding perfect health to life extension in our messages, we can significantly widen the number of our supporters.
Studies like this illustrate the importance of analyzing how the nature of the message matters in furthering our cause.
The advocates of rejuvenation biotechnology, including research groups and fundraisers for biological aging research, should carefully consider the messages they are using, as some of them are more efficient at encouraging an informed and engaging discussion with society about the benefits of bringing aging under medical control.
This subject feeds into the bottlenecks we currently have in research, and you can read more about that here.
 Lang, F. R., Baltes, P. B., & Wagner, G. G. (2007). Desired lifetime and end-of-life desires across adulthood from 20 to 90: A dual-source information model. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 62(5), P268-P276.
 Lugo, L., Cooperman, A., & Funk, C. (2013). Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ Views on Aging, Medical Advances, and Radical Life Extension. Pew Research Center, August, 6. URL: https://www.pewforum.org/2013/08/06/living-to-120-and-beyond-americans-views-on-aging-medical-advances-and-radical-life-extension/
 CARP Radical Life Extension Poll Report (2013). URL: https://www.carp.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Life-Extension-Poll-Report.pdf
 Financial University of the Government of the Russian Federation, Sociology Faculty (2015). Most of Russians want to live up to 80 years only. (Bol’shinstvo rossijan hochet dozhit’ tol’ko do 80 let). URL: https://www.fa.ru/chair/priklsoc/Documents/24_Life_Expectancy_2015.pdf
 Partridge, B., Lucke, J., Bartlett, H., & Hall, W. (2011). Public attitudes towards human life extension by intervening in ageing. Journal of Aging Studies, 25(2), 73-83.
 Harris, C. R., Jenkins, M., & Glaser, D. (2006). Gender differences in risk assessment: why do women take fewer risks than men?. Judgment and Decision making, 1(1), 48.
 Kogan, N., Tucker, J., & Porter, M. (2011). Extending the human life span: an exploratory study of pro-and anti-longevity attitudes. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 73(1), 1-25.