A recent survey of adults in the US found that only about one-third would take a life extension pill if one were available . These findings are about the same as those of an Australian survey a decade ago , highlighting the need for more effective life extension advocacy.
A plurality opposed
To investigate public attitudes towards life extension, a pair of researchers at the University of Texas at Tyler and UT Southwestern Medical Center surveyed about 900 adults. Participants were asked, “If doctors developed a pill that enabled you to live forever at your current age, would you take it?” The researchers explain that this frame was designed to make the treatment seem legitimate, effective, and painless. Participants were also asked for the youngest and oldest age at which they would want to live forever.
The survey used three age cohorts for analysis. The youngest, aged 18-29, consisted of undergraduate psychology students, while the older two (60-84 and 85+) were “healthy, community-dwelling older adults.” The division of the older adults into two groups aimed to capture the different concerns about death and dying, since people in the younger-old adult group had not yet reached the average lifespan and could expect to live longer, while the older-old adults “likely has less of a temporal horizon,” as the authors put it.
The three age cohorts did not differ significantly in their responses to the first question. In each group, only about one-third of the participants said they would take the pill, about one-quarter were unsure, and the remainder – roughly half – said they would not take a life extension pill.
There was a difference in their answers to the second question, with the youngest and oldest ages increasing with the age of the respondent. This isn’t worth dwelling on since such life extension technology isn’t within our grasp at the moment, but it is worth considering; as the authors note, this means that young adults might miss out by choosing to stop aging before they have reached the age that older adults consider optimal.
What gives us pause?
Unfortunately, this study didn’t investigate why many of the participants were opposed to taking a life extension pill, aside from the statement that “it is possible that individuals may have concerns about immortality that may outweigh their death anxiety.” However, the overall proportions are roughly consistent with those reported in a 2011 study of Australian adults, and that study did include questions to clarify participants’ reasoning.
In a survey of roughly 600 Australian adults in three age groups (18–30; 31–50; 51+), about 35% said that they would use a life extension technology if it were available. However, 65% of the respondents supported longevity research. Another way to look at these results is to say that of the people who supported the development of life extension technologies, 52% would actually use them, while 34% would not and the remainder were unsure.
By including questions on the survey about the moral and ethical issues about life extension, as well as its personal and societal harms and benefits, the researchers had collected data to help them disentangle this. They found that 58% of the participants thought that there were concerning moral or ethical issues surrounding life extension, nearly half (47.8%) believed that such technologies would do more harm than good to society, and 38.9% felt that taking life extension pills would cause them more personal harm than benefit.
Further analysis of the survey responses showed that the strongest predictors of an unwillingness to use life extension technology were negative personal expectations and greater concerns about the “naturalness” of such technologies. A partial explanation may be that life extension technologies (and research) may be perceived as more akin to enhancements than to treatments; surveys about pharmaceutical enhancements report a similar split – support for the research combined with an unwillingness to use them.
Introduction: Biomedical technology holds the promise of extending human life spans; however, little research has explored attitudes toward life extension. Methods: This survey asked young adults (n = 593), younger-old adults (n = 272), and older-old adults (n = 46) whether they would take a hypothetical life extension treatment as well as the youngest and oldest age at which they would wish to live forever. Results: Age cohorts did not vary in their willingness to use life extension; however, in all three age cohorts, a plurality indicated that they would not use it. Men indicated a higher level of willingness to use the life extension treatment than women. Younger-old and older-old adults indicated that they would prefer to live permanently at an older age than younger adults. Discussion: If a life extension treatment were to become available that effectively stopped aging, young adults may be likely to use such a treatment to avoid reaching the ages at which older cohorts say they would prefer to live forever.
Research never happens in a vacuum. Understanding the attitude of the public towards life extension technology is vital both to secure support for longevity research and, in the long run, to ensure that any resulting technologies are used effectively. Based on these two surveys, the past decade has not seen an upswell of support for life extension, despite continued advocacy efforts. Such analyses can also guide advocacy efforts by identifying concerns that need to be addressed: for example, discovering why many people feel that life extension would cause them more personal harm than benefit. Proponents of longevity should try to understand the basis for such concerns and address them.
 Barnett, MD and Helphrey, JH. Who wants to live forever? Age cohort differences in attitudes towards life extension. Journal of Aging Studies (2021), doi: 10.1016/j.jaging.2021.100931
 Partridge, B, Lucke, J, Bartlett, H, and Hall, W. Public attitudes towards human life extension by intervening in aging. Journal of Aging Studies (2011), doi: 10.1016/j.jaging.2010.08.012