Longevity sells. Marketers like to claim that their products will add years to your life. Social scientists often compare the mortality rates associated with different groups of people and ways of living, and then try to figure out what the people with the longest lives are doing right. But do most people really want to live as long as possible?
In a study published in the December 2017 issue of the Journal of Aging Studies, University of Kansas gerontologist David J. Ekerdt and his international group of co-authors addressed that question in lengthy face-to-face interviews. Participants were 90 people (30 each from Germany, China, and the U.S.) who were at least 60 years old and considered themselves retired, even if they still did some work. In all three countries, many people said they wanted more and more years to live only if they stayed reasonably healthy.
People Who Were Not Interested in Living Much Longer
Of the 90 people interviewed, 33 said that they did not want to live any longer or didn’t care. For example, an 84-year-old woman said, “I’d like to go tomorrow.” Intriguingly, not all of them were in poor health. Some, for example, said they had already accomplished what they wanted. For example, an 84-year-old man said, “I’ve had a full enough life. I don’t know what I’m going to add to it. It’s pleasant enough, but I don’t know that I’m going to be adding anything of any grand scale.”
Others just accepted the length of their lives as their fate (e.g., “When I’m done, I’m done.”). Some pointed to the age at which a parent or grandparent died and saw that as their anticipated length of life. For example, a 63-year-old woman said that her mother died at 69 and she would be “content” to do the same.
People Who Wanted to Live Longer – But Only If They Stayed Reasonably Healthy
Asked how many more years he wanted, a 75-year-old man said, “as many as I could get where quality of life was good.” That sort of answer was offered by 43 of the 90 participants. They were interested in living longer but only if they continued to feel good enough to enjoy life, have decent mental abilities and mobility, and not be a burden on others.
A 69-year-old man said, “As long as I’m healthy, I’m going to keep going. If my health were to change and my days are filled with discomfort or the lack of ability to engage in life to any extent, then you know…”
Over the course of the interviews, participants sometimes talked about people they knew who lived a long time but in poor health. A 73-year-old woman referred to an “invalid” who “can’t do anything” and said, “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”
People Who Wanted to Live Longer – and Did Not Add Any Qualifications about Good Health
The other 14 participants said they wanted to live longer and did not add that they only wanted additional years if they stayed healthy. Even these people, though, tended to describe some goal they wanted to reach, rather than saying that they wanted to live as long as possible.
For example, a 79-year-old woman said, “mainly, I would like to see what my grandkids grow up to be.” Others described aspirations such as completing a construction project he had started or getting all the pension money he thought he deserved.
A Third Age, but Not a Fourth
Because the study was small, and the participants were not nationally representative samples (they were recruited from notices posted at senior centers and apartment complexes and in newspapers, and by word of mouth), the results are more suggestive than definitive. Yet even with such qualifications, it seems noteworthy that there were similarities across the three countries in how people thought about how long they wanted to live.
The authors concluded that “health is favored over longevity.” They noted that “future time is welcome so long as it occurs in the “third age” of independent living and not in the “fourth age” of vulnerability and decline.” The Journal of Gerontology seemed to get it right when it published its first issue in 1946 under the banner, “To add life to years, not just years to life.”
Ekerdt. D. J., Koss, C. S., Li, A., Munch, A., Lessenich, S., and Fung, H. H. (2017). Is longevity a value for older adults? Journal of Aging Studies, 43, 46-52.