Years of our lives

The average life expectancy in the United States is now 78.7 years.


According to Scripture, the patriarchs of the Old Testament lived for hundreds of years. The allotment for the rest of us was mostly threescore years and 10, or 70, as we say today.

But medical science has extended life so dramatically that it is conceivable 120 years or more will one day be considered the new 70. It’s not a thought from science fiction: America as a whole is steadily aging, because of not only medical advances, but also a declining birth rate.

The average life expectancy in the United States is now 78.7 years. Roughly 41 million Americans are 65 years old 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 100 or older.

Will this extreme graying be a good thing? The Pew Research Center, which regularly surveys Americans’ attitudes, has asked that question. The answers are interesting if contradictory.

Pew researchers’ recent survey about what they call radical life extension found that “many Americans do not look happily on the prospect of living much longer lives.” Asked how long they would like to live, 69 percent choose an age between 79 and 100 — longer than people generally live now. But only 9 percent would choose to live more than 100 years.

Some 54 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 would let them live to at least 120 years.

Moreover, two-thirds of those surveyed believe that longer life spans would strain natural resources. The same share of respondents said they think that only the rich would have access to age-extending treatments.

In their ambivalent way, Americans seem to be happy with the way Nature moves us all along to our fate. But 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/‚ÄčAnd God fulfils Himself in many ways/‚ÄčLest one good custom should corrupt the world.”