Much is made of the longevity revolution, and rightfully so. The average life expectancy in 1900 was 47 years. Today it is 78. This three-decade bonus has fundamentally altered the economy, politics, and society, while helping lay waste to pension systems around the globe and shatter any notion of a traditional life path.
Of course, medical breakthroughs and better healthcare have also blessed us with more time to accomplish our goals, pursue our passions, and spend time with grandchildren, great grandchildren, and other loved ones. So these extra years really are a bonus—as long as you can pay for them.
But here’s the thing: We haven’t seen anything yet. Scientists believe they’re on the cusp of new treatments that will slow or stop the aging process and allow humans to remain healthy and productive to the age of 120 or older.
This is a big deal. Previous increases in the average human life span were achieved in big part by medicines that allowed more infants and children to survive to adulthood. The coming breakthroughs will push the boundaries of human aging well past previous limits.
The prospect of radical life extension has scholars and religious leaders pondering the impact. Pope Benedict XVI has said, “Endless life would be no paradise.” But most religions are on board, figuring a longer life affords more time for good works and to achieve oneness with your maker.
Americans generally are okay with a gradual rise in the age of the population. Nine in 10 say that an aging population is either neutral or positive, according to a Pew survey. We’re also optimistic about our future: 81% say they are satisfied with their lives today and 84% expect that 10 years from now their lives will be the same or better. Even amid a national retirement savings crisis, just 18% say they worry a lot about money.
Yet most find the prospect of living to 120 unsettling. Roughly half in the survey said medical treatments that stretch life spans so far would be bad for society. Even more shunned the idea of undergoing such treatments to extend their own lives. Two-thirds said their ideal expiration date was between 79 and 100 years. Only 4% wanted to live to the age of 121 or beyond.
Meanwhile, two-thirds believe that only the rich would be able to lengthen their lives, and just as many worry that science would offer up radical life-extending treatments before the health effects were fully understood.
Our aging population is here to stay. Two-thirds of all the people who have ever lived to age 65 are alive today, and even without new breakthroughs this trend will only grow more pronounced. By 2050, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections, one in five Americans will be 65 or older, and at least 400,000 will be 100 or older.
Radical life-extension treatments would greatly accelerate the trend, disrupting the life-stage model again and further straining our resources even as we find time to revel in our visits with great-great-great-great grandchildren.