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radical life extension

The May 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine showed a baby with the caption “This baby will live to be 120.” As you will learn in this book, we know much about the factors determining the length of the human life span, and we have in our grasp the ability to dramatically lengthen the number of years people live. But just because science now enables us to think about radical life extension, the key question is whether people will want to live to be 120.

The Pew Research Center (2013a) asked a representative sample of 2,012 U.S. adults whether they would want to live decades longer, to at least 120 years. Interestingly, when people answered from their own perspective, 56% said they would not want to live that long. But when asked what they thought other people would do, 68% said they thought other people would choose to live to at least 120. We will take a closer look at other aspects of this poll in later chapters, but in general, the results showed that people are optimistic about their own aging and the scientific advances that will enable them to enjoy a higher quality of life in old age.

A dramatic extension of the human life span to 120 years or more would likely raise ethical and moral questions, especially with respect to how we should handle the end of life. For questions such as these, many people turn to religious leaders for guidance. As part of their survey research project, the Pew Research Center (2013b) also looked at how 18 major American religious groups might approach this issue. Because no major religious group in America has taken a formal position on radical life extension, Pew researchers looked at what bioethicists (people who focus on ethics within health areas, for instance), clergy, and other scholars have said about how their respective traditions might approach the matter.

The Pew report contains links to related writings in the various religious traditions that, as you might imagine, vary across denomination. Buddhists may see longer life as providing more opportunities to learn wisdom and compassion and to achieve nirvana. Catholics may see longer lives as diminishing the search for the transcendent. Hindus may welcome longer life, as their normal blessing is “Live long.” Muslims and Jews may view longer life as a reflection of God’s plan for humanity. For many Protestants, the key factor would be whether longer life spans are seen as a way to avoid death, which would likely lead them to oppose it. These different views reflect different perspectives that result from the interpretation of both individual and collective experiences that are influenced in turn by various biological, psychological, and sociocultural forces (explored earlier in this chapter).

As we move along our journey through the human life span, questions that take us to the intersection of science and personal belief will occur frequently. Earlier in this chapter, we encountered the rules by which scientific research is conducted, so you should have a good understanding of what the Pew Research Center did in conducting their poll. In Chapter 16, when we encounter the complex personal issues relating to the end of life, you will have a thorough grounding in how people use (or ignore) research findings in their own lives.

When people think about living to an age far outside of normal expectations – say to 120 or even 150 years of age – they tend to think about their own lives and what they would do with such time. Extending the human lifespan to such lengths, however, might have drastic implications for public policy and the planet as a whole. Do you think that such an increased lifespan would be good for the population? Why or why not? Be thorough in your discussion of these factors.

Do you think that most people would want to live to be 120 years of age, or even older? Give three arguments in favor of living to such an age, and then give three arguments against such longevity.

Any discussion of human lifespan, including increasing the number of years that human beings can live, must include consideration of various religious perspectives on the topic. Select at least two different religions discussed in your text and note how that religion would view an increased lifespan.

Do you think a desire to live longer than we currently do is fueled by (a) wanting to stay alive to be productive, (b) wanting to spend more time with loved ones, (c) wanting to see what the future holds beyond our own normal lives, (d) a fear of death and what, if anything, comes after our lives, or (e) some combination of the above. Perhaps you think there are other contributing factors. Discuss.

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