The years of our lives: Americans are not eager to see a second century

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According to Scripture, the patriarchs of the Old Testament lived for hundreds of years, but the allotment for the rest of us was mostly three-score years and 10, or 70, as we say today. Now medical science has extended life so dramatically that it is not inconceivable that 120 years will one day be considered the new 70.

The average life expectancy in the United States is already 78.7 years and roughly 41 million Americans are 65 or older, 13 percent of the population (it was 4 percent in 1900). The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that one in five Americans will be 65 or older by 2050 and at least 400,000 will be at least 100.

Will this extreme graying of America be a good thing? The Pew Research Center, in a recent survey on what it calls radical life extension, found that "many Americans do not look happily on the prospect of living much longer lives." Asked how long they'd like to live, 69 percent chose an age between 79 and 100 -- longer than people generally live now. But only 9 percent chose to live more than 100 years.

Fifty-four percent of adults believe that "medical treatments these days are worth the costs because they allow people to live longer and better quality lives." At the same time, 56 percent do not want medical treatments that let them live to at least 120. Moreover, 66 percent believe longer life spans would strain natural resources and by the same percentage think only the wealthy would have access to age-extending treatments.

In their ambivalence, Americans seem to be happy with the way Nature moves us along to our fate, although they don't mind a little help from medical science to stay the Grim Reaper's scythe. Long ago, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson had wise words about why mortality must have the final say: "The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world."

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