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Study finds exactly how long people want to live: it isn’t forever

Biomedical science assumes that people want to live as long as possible. They don't.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Key Takeaways
  • A new study reports that aging Norwegians would like to live 91 years.
  • Most people prefer a shorter life if they have dementia, chronic pain, or are a burden to their families.
  • There is more to life than just making sure it doesn't end.

The search for immortality is the plot to the oldest epic everwritten. Allegedly, alchemists and conquistadors sought after it. Claims of ridiculously old age flourished in theUSSR. It seems that humanity always has had an obsession with living forever.

Or has it? As it turns out, when asked how long they would like to live, people don’t answer “forever.” A newstudy out of Norway, published in the journal Age and Ageing, revealed a much more finite response: roughly 91 years.

Who wants to live forever?

In recent years, a small number of studies have begun to investigate how long people would like to live. A small Americanstudy provided an average response of 93 years. A Germanstudy from 2007 put the number at 85. This new study not only looks at how long people would prefer to live but also at how various ailments and life situations impact that number.

A total of 825 Norwegians over the age of 60 living in central Norway participated in the study. They were asked, “If you could choose freely, until which age would you wish to live?” The typical respondent expressed a desire to live just over 91 years, about five years longer than the current life expectancy for a 70-year-old in Norway. Older respondents gave slightly higher answers than younger respondents.

They were then asked how long they would like to live if they faced adversity, such as dementia, chronic pain, loneliness, poverty, or becoming a burden on society. The answers changed.

Nearly 90 percent of participants said that a dementia diagnosis would have “substantial or some negative impact” on how long they would like to live. Nearly as many said the same for chronic pain. Just over 70 percent said becoming a burden to society would lower how long they would like to live, though only 56 percent said the same about living in poverty. Loneliness or the death of a spouse got the same result from 66 percent and 62 percent of respondents, respectively.

The answers varied by demographic. Those who were single were much less concerned about being lonely. The more highly educated were more concerned about chronic pain and dementia. Those who presented with a “probable cognitive impairment” were less concerned about dementia or becoming a burden on society than others.

A unique study

This study also differs from the previous ones in some interesting ways. For instance, previous studies had suggested that men desired to live longer than women, who favored slightly shorter, healthier lives. This study found only a marginal difference between how long men and women wanted to live. Furthermore, the current participants also desired to live longer than those in some previous studies, though the authors note that this could result from a higher quality of life now.

The authors emphasize that the aging of the population and increasing prevalence of dementia give the findings ever increasing relevance. They explain the many possible applications of these findings in their paper:

“When discussing the ongoing increase in life expectancy and how to safeguard a good quality of life at older ages, it is important to consider how older individuals view rising life expectancy. Understanding variation in life expectancy preferences can help health care, social service providers, and the general public better understand fears and concerns held by older individuals.”

Quality of life matters just as much as — if not more than — longevity. Apparently, there is more to life than just making sure it doesn’t end.


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