August 6, 2013

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

Preface

While the Pew Research Center routinely tracks long-established trends in public attitudes, it also tries to identify emerging social, political and religious issues. We began polling on same-sex marriage, for example, in 1996, seven years before Massachusetts became the first state to allow it. The goal of these early studies is to set down some initial markers that may help us, years down the road, to look back and measure the amount and direction of change in public opinion on evolving issues.

The idea for the forward-looking survey reported in these pages goes back to summer 2010, when David Masci, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, interviewed a range of scientists, bioethicists and other experts about technological changes that could set off ethical and religious debates. Among the possibilities they raised was “radical life extension,” the prospect that advances in biotechnology and other fields could slow down or turn back the biological clock and allow many humans to live to 120 years or beyond. Some religious leaders, Masci found, already were discussing the possibility of much longer life spans. In 2010, for example, Pope Benedict XVI spoke against the desire to postpone death indefinitely, warning that endless life on Earth “would be no paradise.” The issue also has slowly seeped into public consciousness via movies, books and the news media.

It is a great leap, however, to go from discussing a hypothetical scientific breakthrough to polling the U.S. public about it. To begin to explore what Americans think about radical life extension, the Religion & Public Life Project conducted two pilot studies, involving a total of more than 500 telephone interviews, in fall 2011. These tests broached the topic of scientific developments that might, in the future, allow an average person to live decades longer than is usual today. Respondents were asked to say, in their own words, what thoughts came to mind when they considered this possibility. Cary Funk, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center who has extensive experience in polling about science and related issues, used the open-ended responses to develop a series of more specific questions on topics such as overpopulation and economic inequality. Pew Research also experimented with Google Consumer Surveys, using the internet to test the effect of specifying that medical advances might allow people to live past the age of 120. All these tests helped us to refine the survey questionnaire, which was fielded in spring 2013 on landlines and cell phones among a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 adults.

Together with the survey results, we are releasing two accompanying reports. “To Count Our Days: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Radical Life Extension” presents an overview of the scientific research and the emerging ethical debate. “Religious Leaders’ Views on Radical Life Extension” describes how some clergy, bioethicists, theologians and other scholars think their religious traditions might approach the issue. Funk was the principal researcher on the survey, and Masci was the principal writer of the companion reports. He received valuable help in 2011-12 from Elizabeth A. Lawton, a former research assistant at the Religion & Public Life Project. Leah Christian, formerly a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, also contributed to the survey. Fieldwork for the survey was ably carried out by Princeton Survey Research Associates International.

Luis Lugo, Director
Alan Cooperman, Deputy Director
Religion & Public Life Project
Pew Research Center