Adults’ expectations about old age influence how long they want to live, according to a new study conducted by doctors at the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University.
Working with colleagues in Norway and Austria, Dr. Vegard Skirbekk, a professor at the Aging Center (which is part of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health) set out to discover how patients’ overall health and happiness corresponded with their longevity preferences.
“Little has been known about how long people want to live, and even less about the factors associated with wanting to live a relatively short or long life,” Dr. Skirbekk explained via email from Norway.
The study, published in the journal Ageing & Society, surveyed 1,631 American adults (ages 18-64) of various ethnic backgrounds—half were women, and one-third were college graduates.
Researchers found that one in six want to die before turning 80 years old (the average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.7 years). About a third wanted to live into their eighties, roughly a quarter hoped to live into their nineties and the remaining participants said they wanted to live to 100 or more years.
Participants’ emotions were also taken into account—people who predicted that growing older would have few benefits were more likely to want to die earlier, while those who thought growing older would be a positive experience expressed a desire to live longer than average.
“For many, it seems that the fear of becoming old may outweigh the fear of dying,” Dr. Skirbekk said. “Observations of one’s own older family members could be important in forming one’s own old age expectations.”
While the findings were uniform no matter participants’ age, gender or level of education, race played a role—Hispanic participants were more likely to prefer a shorter life, while African American participants said they wanted to live 100 or more years. The reasons for this were not clear.
Dr. Skirbekk said he and his team now want to drill down further and examine specific aspects that influence preferred life expectancy.