Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2013 | Features

Age-Old Question

By Tina Owen
If you could live to be 120 or even older, would you want to? As medical and scientific advances suggest an eventual transformation in the human lifespan, researchers and ethicists struggle with the implications of that question.

Military Justice

In August, the Pew Research Center released a report—"Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans' Views on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension' (http://tinyurl.com/m52lfdq)—that explored attitudes about extreme longevity. The topic intrigued UI nursing professor emerita Kathleen "Kitty' Buckwalter*, 71BSN, 76MA, the former co-director of the UI Center on Aging and current codirector of the National Health Law and Policy Resource Center, a UI College of Law initiative that promotes access to health care and freedom from abuse for elderly people.

So, Buckwalter conducted her own informal poll of older Iowans she encountered at airports, health care clinics, and in other everyday surroundings, asking their thoughts about the potential of living beyond 100. She discovered they offered a typically down-to-earth, Midwestern perspective on a topic that's ripe with promise and peril.

Pros and Cons

In their chats with Buckwalter, Iowans mirrored the ambivalence identified by the Pew survey, where 56 percent of respondents said they wouldn't undergo radical lifeextending medical treatments. Like many survey respondents, Iowans worried about the financial side of longevity: how would they stretch their retirement income over extra decades? In practical terms, is extreme longevity only a possibility for those able to afford such a luxury?

Along similar lines, they were concerned about the strain on natural resources and jobs caused by a larger, longer-living population. And while several Iowans were enticed by the idea of living long enough to see cherished grandchildren enjoy families of their own, they also feared an old age defined by illness or dependence on others.

High Hopes

Despite similar reservations, many Pew survey respondents predicted a bright future thanks to medical advances, with almost 70 percent anticipating that cures for most forms of cancer will exist by 2050. And almost two-thirds considered life-prolonging medical advances generally good, although another 32 percent worried that they interfered with the natural cycle of life—a point reiterated by an Iowan who feared the unknown consequences of "tinkering with God's order.'

While longevity research is still in its infancy, Buckwalter says, "Science and technology are going to make extreme life expectancy possible. It's not science fiction.'

Quality, not Quantity

The Pew Center survey pegged respondents' median ideal life span at 90 years, compared to the current U.S. life expectancy of 78.7 years. Iowans were similarly modest in their preferences for additional decades, with several saying, "I've had a good life, and I don't need any more.'

Indeed, many expressed appreciation for some of the key emotional and psychological changes that accompany aging. They bore out research indicating that life satisfaction increases with age, as people's aspirations become more in sync with their abilities—so that, instead of unrealistically wishing to be President of the United States, a person can find fulfillment in leading their local senior center musical group.

Buckwalter agrees that the quantity of years isn't as important as quality. And while she's excited by the promise of longevity research, she cautions, "We still have a lot of work to do in the health care system and in other areas of society in terms of coping with people's current lifespan.'