US Catholic Faith in Real Life

120 is the new 100: The pros and cons of living much longer lives

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The next time someone tells you that “life’s too short,” here’s some reassuring information to offer them in return: It is getting longer. Potentially even a lot longer.

Thanks to the miracles of modern science, the idea of people living well into their 100’s is becoming more and more of a reality. National Geographic reported earlier this year on the discoveries scientists have made on the secrets of a longer lifespan (with an attention-grabbing cover showing an infant with the headline "This baby will live to be 120"). The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2050, at least 400,000 people will be past the age of 100. How would Willard Scott ever keep up with all those announcements?

Living a longer life certainly could have some benefits—more time to spend with family and friends, opportunities to travel and see more of the world, being there while your grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up. But according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of  living several more decades. In fact, 56 percent of those surveyed say they would not want to live to age 120 or beyond; the ideal lifespan, according most U.S. adults, would be 90 years.

Pew’s study takes the question a step further, looking beyond what living 12 decades would mean for an individual and considering the slew of moral and ethical dilemmas surrounding the possibility of a society where science can help people live much longer lives. Would it drastically increase the population to the point where we’d expend our natural resources? Would treatments to increase lifespan be available only to the wealthy? Would methods to keep us living longer be employed before we have had time to fully analyze the potential risks?

Of course, there are many questions to ask from a religious perspective as well. Would scientific breakthroughs to extend the human life essentially mean we’re playing God? Or would we simply be using the gifts God has given us in new and different ways, in much the same way that we’ve cured disease and treated illnesses to prolong human life already?

The Pew Center asked some Catholic ethicists to comment on the matter and got a few different responses on how the church might address the issue of radical life extension. Msgr. Tom Green, a law professor at the Catholic University of America, told Pew that any response would likely start at the local level, with bishops consulting experts on how to address questions of life extension in Catholic medical institutions. Then the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops might eventually issue general guidelines, and finally the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith could issue a document on the matter. “All of this usually takes time,” Green warns. “We tend to move slowly in the church.”

That’s OK. Apparently we’re going to be here for a while.