Want to live to age 120? Most Americans say no

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Not that long ago, celebrating an 80th birthday was an uncommon event. I remember watching the 1950s TV show “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx. On one of his shows, Groucho had an 81-year-old male contestant. The man received resounding applause just for being alive. Today, the average life expectancy in many developed countries is 80-plus years, and more people than ever are living beyond age 100.

Is there a limit to how long a human can live? Equally important, if it is well above 100, would you want to live that long? In a just-released survey, the Pew Research Center asked more than 2,000 adults if they would take medical treatments that would slow the aging process and let them live to age 120. More than half (56%) said they would not, but 65% thought that other people would want to live that long.

Among those polled, 69% said the ideal length of life was between 79 and 100 years; 14% said 78 years or under, while 8% said 101 year or older. There was optimism, however, about advances that could extend life. A majority (69%) said they thought there will be cures for most forms of cancer by 2050. Overall, those polled said they believed medical advances that prolong life are generally good (63%) rather than interfering with the natural cycle of life (32%).

Take action now to increase your “healthspan”

The Pew survey did not ask why most adults would not want life extending treatment. Previous work has identified what people fear about getting too old. These include:

  • loss of independence
  • running out of money
  • inability to manage their own activities of daily living
  • not being able to live at home
  • having constant pain
  • reliance on others to care for them
  • isolation or loneliness
  • fear of falling or hurting themselves

These fears are the realities virtually all of us have seen in older family members and friends. But there are ways to minimize the problems that come with age. The strategies aren’t sexy, nor do they rely on medical breakthroughs.

Avoid tobacco. If you are a smoker, it is never too late to quit. Your body reaps health benefits from the day you stop.

Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, especially the brightly colored ones. Get the nutrients you need. With a balanced diet and 10 to 15 minutes of daily sunshine (for the vitamin D), you should be able to get all you need. For pennies a day, a generic multiple vitamin can add some insurance.

Stay physically active. Schedule time every day for at least 30 minutes of dedicated exercise.

Don’t over eat and keep your body weight in check.

Socialize. Maintain contacts with family and friends throughout your life.

Think positive. Most centenarians have a positive attitude and easily shed stress.

Challenge your mind. Learn new skills, try new hobbies, volunteer, and do other things to keep mentally sharp.

Don’t overuse alcohol. While a drink per day may actually help your health, more is not better.

Get routine screening exams and vaccinations.

These strategies can help you maximize your “healthspan” as well as your lifespan.

Photo: Clinton Steeds, flickr


  1. M. Beg

    Does one wish to live longer?
    I believe the marked practical hardheaded intelligence to accept standards of social or professional behavior have a solution.
    Remembers I said “A SOLUTION”, the complexity of fitting in with the world “yes I mean the WORLD” and yes it’s a tall order, but, look at the statement with this in mind. A tall order.
    So you live a long or longer life and you have all your faculties intact and you utilize the most treasured of all gifts your brain in an unselfish way of benevolence.
    Just think!
    Being in this state, of having to face difficulty is always and foremost an approach which uses the minds ability to calculate continuously on a solution, and this gives no rise to a cliché or pleonastic situations but a positive attitude of purpose to use that most gracious given endowment your brain for peace and tranquility of yourself and others without a dogmatic posture arising to capability in terms of personnel and materiel that affect the capacity to fight a war.
    The more active the mind the more energy used, establishes a need to remain healthy.
    The mind can bring about ways to keep you healthy, active and give you raise to a compensation for a wrong, since wrongs are committed throughout life.
    Imagine what a wonderful way to live, knowing how to implement your ability to help those who are less fortunate in an altruistic manner.
    Remember I did say “A solution” and I did say “A tall order”; do not try to negate this with “wishful thinking”.
    With all that going on who would wish to end the life early?

  2. Kenan kaya

    wish you success in your website has been wonderful. We wish you every success for your own site

  3. Walter Robinson

    People these days are living much longer and because of this most people develop diseases and conditions that will require medical attention or long term care in the future. It wouldn’t be that bad if you lived a healthy lifestyle in the past but there’s no denying that at some point in your life you will still need even a little help from family members or caregivers in carrying out your daily living activities. I appreciate the tips and strategies you’ve provided that can help people minimize their problems as they age. But I would just like to add that it also helps to prepare by researching and reading information on long term care. Through this, you’ll have an idea on what you’re about to face in the future and you can prepare for this as early as possible.

  4. Logishealth

    living at the age of 120 for our generation will be little bit difficult as this generation are suffering from new diseases and pollution…

  5. Kurtis Kintzel

    Living to 120 would be awesome – unless the body turns into a prune, organs malfunction and the five senses fail to perceive.

    I coach baseball and run a baseball portal for everything baseball and would love to hang around the game till I’m 120, especially if I were playing or coaching!

  6. Advanced Acne Institute

    Increased life expectancy just reminds people that it’s important to develop your retirement fund at an early age. You’ll need more money to support a happy lifestyle during those added years.

  7. Cigaretter Alternative

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing this write-up plus the rest of the website is also really good.

  8. Jack Prince

    I am with you, sister!

  9. Greg

    Though it wasn’t looked at in this study, I suspect the reason most people would not want to live to 120 is because they assume that those last years would be painful and depressing, spent immobile in nursing homes without their mental and physical faculties.

    If you had asked, instead, “assuming you would have the vigor of a healthy 50 year old until the day you die, would you want to live to 120?” I suspect more people would have said yes.

    As for me, if you offered me 500 years of health, I would jump at it in a microsecond. There are just too many wonderful things to see and do, people to meet, places to live, skills to learn, music to play, discoveries to make… Even if you spent just 2 1/2 years living in each separate country, you wouldn’t get to all of them in 500 years.

    Google “Ray Kurzweil singularity.” We may be closer to this future than you think.

  10. I sure as hell will give it my best shot..

Commenting has been closed for this post.