August 6, 2013

Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ Views on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension

Chapter 7: Race, Ethnicity and Views About Medical Treatments and Radical Life Extension

longevity-chp7-1As noted earlier, views about radical life extension tend to vary by race and ethnicity. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than (non-Hispanic) whites to say that radical life extension would be a good thing for society, and they are also somewhat more inclined to say that they personally would want life-extending treatments.

The reasons for these differences likely are complex. There are significant racial and ethnic group differences on a number of beliefs that are correlated with views about radical life extension, including expectations that radical life extension will come to fruition by the year 2050 and beliefs about the impact of the growing elderly population on society. While overall views about medical treatments today tend to be about the same among racial and ethnic groups, blacks are especially likely to express a desire to live 100 years or more. And both blacks and Hispanics tend to be more optimistic than are whites about the future outlook for their personal lives.

Relative to other racial and ethnic groups, whites are particularly pessimistic that radical life extension will come to pass. Only about a quarter of whites (23%) say the average person will live to at least 120 years old by 2050. This compares with 29% among Hispanics and 35% among blacks.

longevity-chp7-2

Further, blacks and Hispanics are more inclined than whites to consider the growing elderly population a good thing for society (50% among blacks, 44% among Hispanics and 38% among whites). And blacks are more inclined to believe that the growing world population will not be a major problem (46%) because people will find a way to stretch the world’s natural resources than are either whites (37%) or Hispanics (33%).Thus, several of the beliefs that tend to be associated with views about radical life extension also tend to differ by race and ethnicity.

By contrast, whites, blacks and Hispanics tend to hold similar views about another strong correlate of views about radical life extension – overall views about medical treatments today. Similar shares of whites (64%), blacks (62%) and Hispanics (63%) say that medical advances that prolong life are generally good because they allow people to live longer, better-quality lives. About a third of each group says such advances are bad because they interfere with the natural cycle of life.

And roughly half of whites (55%), blacks (51%) and Hispanics (50%) say that medical treatments used today are generally worth the costs because they allow people to live longer, better-quality lives.

There is an exception to this pattern, however. Blacks tend to express somewhat less confidence than whites and Hispanics that new medical treatments are carefully tested before being made available to the public. Only about a fifth of blacks (19%) have a lot of confidence that new medicines are carefully tested, compared with a quarter of whites and 31% of Hispanics.

And while the overall average life expectancy in the U.S. is lower for non-Hispanic blacks (74.7 years) than it is for non-Hispanic whites (78.8 years) or Hispanics (81.2), blacks are especially likely to say they would like to live substantially longer than the current average.9 About one-in-six blacks (15%) say they would choose to live to more than 100 years, while roughly half as many whites (7%) and Hispanics (6%) say the same.

Both blacks and Hispanics are particularly optimistic about their personal lives in the years ahead. Fully 78% of blacks and about two-thirds (67%) of Hispanics expect their lives to be better 10 years from now than they are today. By contrast, about half (48%) of whites say the same. Optimism for the future is modestly related to beliefs about radical life extension and may contribute to the racial and ethnic group differences in views and preferences for getting life-extending treatments.

  1. Average life expectancies from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2013. “Table 18” in “Health, United States, 2012: With Special Feature on Emergency Care,” National Center for Health Statistics. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus12.pdf#018.