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While medical schools have had the idea that aging should be brought under medical control for over a century, the explicit desire to greatly extend one’s life remained rare – until very recently. A new study by YouGov, a market intelligence company that researches multiple topics, found that, today, one in five Americans agrees with the statement “I want to live forever.” Is this the result of some sort of bias, or does it mean that we are reaching a turning point, after which society will start boldly and unambiguously clamoring for the cure for aging?

The desire for a long life

The wish to remain healthy and young and live significantly longer has accompanied humanity since its dawn. The most ancient myths and the very first pieces of literature, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, tried to explain human aging and mortality, and they pictured heroes who pursued ways to live indefinitely or to save their loved ones. These early motivations are woven into modern religions, and they eventually caused life and health to be considered universal human rights that have to be valued and protected.

The development of medicine is one of the direct consequences of this desire. It would be accurate to say that the World Health Organization (whose stated objective is the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health) aims to eradicate all diseases, including age-related ones, thus enabling people to live as long as they want. This objective is listed in the WHO’s constitution, which is a legally binding document. When, exactly, this can be achieved depends on our joint efforts.

How many people are aware of the possibility of controlling aging?

One of the main bottlenecks that slows down the development of rejuvenation biotechnologies is that the public, even in developed countries, does not know about the growing possibility of bringing aging under medical control. In a study of the Australian public conducted by Brad Partridge and his colleagues in 2009 [1], it was found that only 5% of participants knew about life extension quite a lot, while 54% said that they knew nothing and 41% knew a little. A CARP poll of older people in Canada from 2013 [2] revealed that only 4% of participants know “a lot” about radical life extension. A Pew Research report released in 2013 [3] said that only 7% of people knew “a lot” about this topic.

People generally do not believe in the plausibility of targeting the mechanisms of aging in order to slow down and reverse age-related damage. After so many millennia of fruitless dreams, with so many powerful psychological defenses that protect our state of mind when we face the idea of inevitable death by aging, becoming hopeful is usually too much to ask. This can explain why most people, when asked about their desired lifespan, add only a few years to the life expectancy of their given countries [4].

The growing belief that using medicine to control aging is a good thing

However, in the last few years, things have apparently started to change. In 2015, in a study by Donner et al [5], it was found that given perfect mental and physical health, 797 out of 1000 participants wanted to live to 120 or longer; over half of these 797 people desired unlimited lifespans (around 40% of all participants).

The new study by YouGov shows even more impressive results. We at Lifespan.io generally stay away from strong statements such as “living forever” or “immortality”, because these expressions are hardly scientific and have a religious background. The notion of immortality even seems to scare some people because it seems to limit their freedom and because immortals are pictured by pop culture as criminals, crazy, or morally inferior. The movie Altered Carbon by Netflix is a recent example of this. Therefore, people often reject the idea of extended life without perfect health.

However, in a new study by YouGov that included around 1200 participants, one in five (19%) people agreed with the statement “I want to live forever” without any promises related to perfect health. 42% of the participants chose “I want to live longer than a normal lifespan, but not forever”, while 23% said, “I don’t want to live longer than a normal lifespan.” People in different age groups reacted to this survey differently; it turns out that the idea of radical life extension was more supported by young people (24%) than by people over 55 (13%), while support for the status quo was the opposite (19% of young people didn’t want to live longer than a normal lifespan, while this position was shared by 29% of people aged 55 and older).

Interestingly, when asked about their preferred way to dispose of their body after death, 3% of people (that is, about 36 people overall) named cryonics!

Gender imbalance in the acceptance of life extension

What should worry us as a community is that the share of women predisposed to the radical scenario in this survey is lower than the share of men (15% and 23%, respectively), and more women prefer the scenario of life extension without immortality than men (44% and 41%, respectively) as well as the status quo (25% and 22%, respectively).

Our own recent study of Russian social media communities that support life extension shows even more drastic results (38% of women and 83% of men for the most radical life extension and immortality, 48% of women and 12% of men for extending life without reaching immortality). Interestingly, when the 2012 Levada Center study asked the same questions of the general public, the replies of men and women did not significantly differ.

My hypothesis is that the Internet reading patterns of men and women are different, with men reading more often about the most advanced technologies and experiments and women reading more often about softer ways to maintain health, such as lifestyle, stress management, and warm relationships. It may be that, due to previous choices, search engines provide different information on aging research and life extension to men and women, which, in turn, can explain why the radical scenario looks more believable to men than to women, leading to men being more supportive of indefinite lifespans.

If this is true, then we, as a community, should try to find a way to change that. Women are the main decision-makers when it comes to taking care of the health of family members (they make about 80% of health decisions in the family) [6]. Women are also primary caregivers for the elderly in many countries. If search engines are indeed preventing them from learning about the breakthroughs in aging research, we need to find a way to change that, not only for the sake of women themselves but also for the sake of their family members and the rejuvenation industry.

Are we reaching a turning point?

We also have a reason for some optimism. The Lifespan.io survey that I organized in 2018 was done among regular readers of Russian longevity groups and pages on social media, and 80% of them supported the idea of life extension. However, these were regular readers of longevity news!

The YouGov survey [7], however, was done on random people who might or might not be members of our community, and few of them are regularly exposed to news about aging and longevity research. However, over 60% explicitly expressed a desire for radical life extension. That is a big jump from the Pew Research study from 2013, where only 38% of the participants expressed the desire to undergo medical treatments to slow aging and live to be 120 or more. Of course, the questions in these surveys were formulated differently, so we cannot directly compare them. However, looking at various, similar studies, it appears that, in the last 5 years, 20% more Americans have become aware that something serious is going on in the rejuvenation biotechnology industry.

This can mean that our joint efforts to promote the idea of bringing aging under medical control are finally bringing fruit. Should we be hopeful that more people will accept the idea of defeating aging? Definitely, we should!

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Literature

[1] 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.

[2] CARP Radical Life Extension Poll Report. September 6, 2013. http://www.carp.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Life-Extension-Poll-Report.pdf

[3] Lugo, L., Cooperman, A., Funk, C., O’Connell, E., & Stencel, S. (2013). Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ Views on Aging, Medical Advances, and Radical Life Extension. Pew Research Center, August, 6. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/08/06/living-to-120-and-beyond-americans-views-on-aging-medical-advances-and-radical-life-extension/

[4] Smol’kin, A. A., Zhigareva, P. A., Makarova, E. A., Kiryukhina, A. A., Milova, E. A., & Khaltourina, D. A. (2018). Attitudes towards Aging Prevention: Results of a Focus-Group Study. Advances in Gerontology, 8(1), 71-78.

[5] Donner, Y., Fortney, K., Calimport, S. R., Pfleger, K., Shah, M., & Betts-LaCroix, J. (2016). Great desire for extended life and health amongst the American public. Frontiers in genetics, 6, 353.

[6] Matoff-Stepp, S., Applebaum, B., Pooler, J., & Kavanagh, E. (2014). Women as health care decision-makers: implications for health care coverage in the United States. Journal of health care for the poor and underserved, 25(4), 1507-1513.

[7] Burials. Fieldwork Dates: 7th – 8th November 2018. Conducted by YouGov. On behalf of YouGov Omnibus. Link

 

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About the author
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Elena Milova

As a devoted advocate of rejuvenation technologies since 2013, Elena is providing the community with a systemic vision how aging is affecting our society. Her research interests include global and local policies on aging, demographic changes, public perception of the application of rejuvenation technologies to prevent age-related diseases and extend life, and related public concerns. Elena is a co-author of the book “Aging prevention for all” (in Russian, 2015) and the organizer of multiple educational events helping the general public adopt the idea of eventually bringing aging under medical control.
  1. February 6, 2019

    Awesome work!

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