An editorial this week by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow woke me up to that unnerving fact that the ultra-conservative Pope Benedict XVI and I agree on something. Writing about rising life expectancies, Blow trots out the usual statistics and cites a new report by the Pew Research Center titled “Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ View on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension.” The report defines radical life extension as 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.” Pew found that most Americans weren’t familiar with the concept and weren’t in a big rush to embrace it, although they thought most other people would undergo medical treatments to extend their lives.
Even if the science were anywhere close, I’m no fan of the radical life extension. Like most Americans, I figure these technologies will only be available to a small elite, but my main objection is philosophical: far better to struggle to come to terms with our mortality than to postpone that reckoning in frantic pursuit of biomedical bonanzas. Before he became Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger edited a document that said it better: “Disposing of death is in reality the most radical way of disposing of life.”
To my surprise, the Pew report also found that the U.S. public wasn’t particularly worried about our aging population. “Nearly nine-in-ten adults surveyed say that “having more elderly people in the population” is either a good thing for society (41%) or does not make much difference (47%). Just 10% see this trend as a bad thing.” That optimism will serve all generations well as we surf this demographic wave.