120 candles?
How many candles would you like to see here?

Today’s research findings come from the Pew Research Centre. While the institution usually produces surveys on American opinions on religious matters, this one focuses on “radical life extension,” or the possibility of medically slowing ageing to reach one’s 120th birthday and beyond. The findings suggest that despite the recent popularity of anything involving vampires, immortality may be out of fashion.

The survey polled 2,012 adults “about ageing, health care, personal life satisfaction, possible medical advances (including radical life extension) and other bioethical issues.” One of the main questions it posed was: would you like medical treatments that slow the ageing process and allow the average person to live decades longer? 56% of respondents said no. Instead, the majority of the surveyed thought 79-100 years to be the ideal life-span. Interestingly though, people perceive everlasting life to be in much more demand than it actually is. When asked about others’ opinions, 68% of those polled thought that most people would like to get the treatment to allow them to blow out 120 candles.

So, what if the 38% who wanted to prolong their life got their wish? Most of the respondents (51%) say radical life extension would be bad for society: most believe it would be only available for the wealthy, risky as a procedure, put a strain on natural resources and the economy. While most think that such medical treatments should be available for everyone (even though they believed it would not be), they are also thought fundamentally unnatural. A world full of extremely old people, billionaires or not, does indeed sound quite unnatural and harmful. Even the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI thought so. “Endless life would be no paradise,” he warned in 2010.

Religious observance does not seem to make a lot of difference in opinions on radical life extension. 51% of those who believe in God say they would not have such treatments, compared with 54% of those who hold no beliefs. Out of the religious, only people who identify as black Protestants have a positive view of treatments to extend life. However, belief in an afterlife might curiously make one wish for immortality on Earth: 43% of the believers would like to have the treatments, while 49% would not. On the other hand, those who do not believe in an afterlife were clearly on the negative side with 55% saying they would not want their life medically extended.

So why isn’t virtual immortality a more popular choice? One reason might be people’s wariness of ambiguous medical treatments. The survey was “deliberately vague” about the means to reach extremely old ages. This vagueness may explain some of the poll’s findings, as many would not want to extend their old age, but rather their virile youth. Indeed, there were considerably fewer people willing to undergo the vague medical treatment aged 65 or over (31%) than those in the 18-29 age group (40%). Also, older respondents held more negative views about the impact of life extension on society. If the survey had promised health and happiness till the end of time, the findings might have been different.

Let’s make one thing clear before you queue up at your GP’s to ask for some anti-ageing jab or pill: this survey is not linked to any new medical procedure that will miraculously (although scientifically) slow the ageing process. Pew Research Centre states that “even the most optimistic researchers acknowledge that major breakthroughs [in anti-ageing treatments] could prove elusive.” The polled people aren’t holding their breath either: 73% said that people living to at least 120 will not happen before the year 2050.