What do you think future societies will look like? (Photo by Tattooed JJ)
If you're a proponent of anti-aging technologies, you most likely know how difficult it can be to argue with people in the pro-aging camp. It sometimes seems that no amount of logical arguments will convince someone who has decided the embrace the idea of dying.
Even though the benefits of increasing human healthspan should be clear to anyone who spends more than a minute thinking about the issue, trying to change public opinion is always a daunting task that takes a long time. If the message you're preaching is true, they will agree with you in the end, but in the meantime, they won't hear a word of it.
I've already written about one global survey on immortality, which indicated that the situation is not quite as hopeless as it could be – the word "immortality" is intimidating to many, after all, and yet there were positive reactions too. But how exactly does the public feel about life extension? If you don't want to live forever, how about living a little bit longer in good health?
This is the question posed by Partridge et al. in their survey, published last year in the Rejuvenation Research journal (link). The team interviewed more than 600 Australians, asking how they felt about the implications of humans being able to live significantly longer. Before the actual questions, the participants were presented with the following vignette:
For this survey, I’d like you to consider the possibility that scientists may develop new biotechnologies to slow down the body’s aging process and vastly increase the length of the human lifespan. This is called life-extension research.
Over the last 100 years or so, better ways to treat and cure diseases have made it possible for people to live longer on average. But, life-extension research aims to
make it possible for people to live much longer lives than we do today, not simply by treating or curing disease, but by slowing down the actual aging process itself. Some scientists estimate that we could live up to 150 years or more by intervening in the rate that we age. By controlling the processes in our body that cause people to age, they claim that we wouldn’t become frail and die at the age we do now, because we wouldn’t deteriorate as quickly. Even though life-extension technologies wouldn’t cure diseases or reverse the ageing process, they may delay the onset of age-related health problems. Ways to slow aging could eventually be offered to people through a range of methods—most likely as life-extension pills.
Imagine what life would be like if scientists developed biotechnologies to slow aging so that people could live past 150 years.
After the vignette, they were asked whether they agree or disagree (on a 7-point scale) with the five questions discussed below. If the participants indicated any level of agreement, they were asked to briefly explain their view and name the most important reasons for their answer.
1. There are ethical or moral issues surrounding life extension research that I find concerning.
More than half (58%) thought that there were some ethical concerns with life extension, the most common being that life extension was "unnatural". Phrases such as "tampering with nature" or "playing God" were common. Second on the list of ethical concerns was the impact of life extension on society and the environment. Overpopulation and lack of sufficient resources were seen as potential problems.
Other ethical concerns included the worry of only rich people having access to life extension technologies and conflicts with religious beliefs. Some participants also felt that funding should be directed to more pressing issues such as treating diseases and poverty, rather than life extension.
2. There would be benefits for me personally from aging slower and living to 150.
Two thirds (64%) thought that a life extension pill would benefit them personally. The most commonly cited benefit was spending more time family members and living to meet future generations of one's family. Almost as many participants saw the ability to experience more things and fulfill life goals as a positive thing.
Being healthier for a longer time was also seen as a benefit, and some felt "living longer" was a benefit that required no further explanation. Only a few (2%) participants named cosmetic improvements as an important benefit, while 7% said they wanted to see what future socities and technologies would look like.
3. There would be downsides for me personally from aging slower and living to 150.
About 80% could name at least one downside to taking a life extension pill. The biggest worry was that the pill would grant extra years of unhealthy life. Living for a long time with a chronic illness was a common fear, as was the uncertainty of physical and mental abilities in someone who is 150.
Second on the list were financial issues with living longer. Many felt that they wouldn't be able to afford to live for many more years. The third problem, identified by 12%, was outliving friends and family: "If I was to take this medication my friends may not take it and you would slowly watch friends die around you.’" Only 5% saw boredom as an issue.
4. Developing life-extension pills would have benefits for society overall.
Half of the participants thought there were some benefits to society from life extension technologies. The most commonly identified benefit was an increase in collective human wisdom and knowledge. The fact that important people such as doctors, scientists, etc. would be around for longer was also seen as a good thing. The third most common benefit was the personal ability to contribute to society more.
5. Developing life-extension pills would have downsides for society overall.
The majority (78%) thought that life extension would have at least some negative consequences for society. Overpopulation was again the most common downside. Participants also felt that health care, housing, food production and welfare would suffer as a consequence, and that there would not be enough resources to support everyone.
The main objection to life extension is still the idea that there is something unnatural and therefore bad about life extension. This thinking seems to be prevalent in religious and non-religious people alike. Other worries include overpopulation and lack of resources in a world where people live significantly longer. Quite a few are also afraid that only the rich will have access to rejuvenation therapies once they become available. Finally, some people worry that these therapies will only prolong unhealthy years, making living longer miserable.
Yet, people also see many positives in life extension. A recurring theme among those surveyed was the ability to spend more time with their family and to live long enough to see their grand-grandchildren grow up. People also felt that a longer life would allow them to experience more things and achieve more of their dreams. Though lack of resources was seen as a problem on the level of societies, many also saw the increase of collective knowledge and the ability to contribute more to society as positive effects of life extension.
And there we have it: the way the average person feels about life extension today. Although seeing the same old pro-aging arguments repeated again and again frustrates me, the fact that so many people were able to see the good things in living longer makes me optimistic. All that is required, then, is to talk to people who have doubts about whether life extension is desirable, to understand where they're coming from, and to get them to open their eyes.
I've already offered some counterarguments to the objections mentioned above in earlier blog posts, but I suppose a more detailed dissection of the arguments is in order. Since most people clearly have the same fears and questions, we might as well learn how to answer them to the best of our abilities. It's about time we break the pro-aging trance, isn't it?
For more information on life extension, see these posts:
Aubrey de Grey in Helsinki, Finland
Why Aging Is a Global Disaster That Needs to Be Solved
Who Wants to Live Forever? Results from a Global Survey
Anti-Aging in the Media: Daily Telegraph on Curing Aging