People Want Long Life -- But Only If They'll Be Healthy

Longevity seems to be a general goal among most people, but a new study finds that individually most people only want to live a long life if they are going to be healthy. The findings are published in the Journal of Aging Studies.

“People in three cultures from around the world are reluctant to specify their desired longevity,” said first author Dr. David Ekerdt, University of Kansas (KU) professor of sociology and gerontology. “To me this is interesting because longevity is such a valued public health objective, but at the individual level, longer lives are a goal ‘only if’ I remain healthy.”

Ekerdt has joined with researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, North Carolina State University at Raleigh, the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and the University of Jena in Germany.

The study, which involved interviews with 90 people aged 62 and older who lived in Germany, China, and the United States, is part of the larger international project “Aging as Future.” The researchers interviewed 30 people in each country, and they recruited the sample with sex and age quotas to reflect a range of experience with retirement.

Promoting longer lives does have tremendous value, says Ekerdt, especially in reducing mortality at younger ages. However, studies that look at how individuals consider longevity are also important because they offer insight into how people think about the aging process, he said.

The findings of these interviews reinforce prior evidence that showed how many older adults in various cultures think of life as not a smooth continuum of time but broken down into different stages. The researchers refer to four “ages” or stages of life, including the third age, which is an active retirement where people leave traditional work and family roles, followed by the fourth age.

“People seem to view one part of the future as wanted and another as not wanted, typically the ‘fourth age’ which is basically the period when one might experience a disability or a potential health decline,” said Ekerdt.

According to the findings, about one-third of the participants did not express aspirations for a longer life.

“Some felt their lives had already reached a stage of completion, and others as a form of fate acceptance,” says Ekerdt.

A greater number of participants did say they wanted to extend their lives, but less than half of that group noted a specific amount of time they desired to live. The strongest opinion in that group was the desire to live longer only if they maintained their current or what they deemed to be acceptable levels of health.

Ekerdt says that these responses indicate that people likely want to remain in the “third age” of active retirement and primarily independent living instead of the “fourth age.”

“That stage typically involves more vulnerability and decline,” he said.

One implication for public health advocates and gerontologists could be to focus not simply on longevity but also emphasize health or quality of life when considering policies related to aging, the researchers recommended.

“Slogans like ‘add life to years, not just years to life,’ appear to match intentions from elders in three nations,” Ekerdt said, “because they are saying something that appears to come from deep in human culture.”

Source: University of Kansas