One in Six Say They'd Rather Die 'Young.' What Age Is That?


The researchers found that the majority of participants surveyed had a specific age that they were shooting for and a concrete idea of what life might be like at that age. olaser/Getty Images
The researchers found that the majority of participants surveyed had a specific age that they were shooting for and a concrete idea of what life might be like at that age. olaser/Getty Images

If you had a choice, would you rather die young or old?

If you opted for the former, you're not alone.

That's according to researchers from the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University in New York. They found that more than 1 in 6 adults would rather die young, relatively speaking, than face the prolonged horrors of sagging skin, brittle bones, failing eyesight and dentures dunked in a bedside glass.

"For these people it seems that the prospect of growing old is worse than death," Catherine E. Bowen, the lead author of the paper, writes via email. "I also find it surprising that the wide majority of our participants were able to give a specific age to which they would like to live. To me, this is an indication that young and middle-aged adults ascribe very significant meaning to chronological age.

"That is, people seem to have a very concrete picture of how good or bad their life will be at, for instance, age 90 relative to age 80 or even age 83 relative to age 80. This stands in contrast to what we know from aging research, that chronological age actually becomes a less and less meaningful indicator of a person's life circumstances," Bowen explains.

Bowen and her colleagues found all this out by conducting a telephone survey of more than 1,600 adults, from 18-64, for their research. The findings are published in the journal Ageing and Society. Here are a few of the key ones:

The 17.1 percent of respondents who would rather shuffle off early? For the paper's purposes, that meant younger than 80, which is roughly a normal life expectancy for those interviewed.

Way more than that (31.9 percent), according to the paper, want to live what is considered a normal life expectancy.

More than that (51 percent) would like to live well past 80 into "old age."

Of those 51 percent, in fact, 26.4 percent want to hit the century mark and keep trucking.

The Importance of Preferred Life Expectancy

Still, the fact that 17.1 percent believe that dying young is preferable to growing old is worth a look for one stunning and perhaps little-known fact about what the authors call preferred life expectancy (PLE). That is, PLE predicts actual mortality.

In terms young'uns can grasp, “there is a significant and meaningful relationship between how long people want to live and how long they actually live,” the authors say.

In even simpler terms: If you want to die young, there's a pretty decent chance that you will.

The reasons for that are still being studied. But the authors of this paper found that how long you prefer to live — your PLE, which, again, is linked to how long you actually live — is based on your idea of what old age is. Both negatively and positively.

"On the one hand, people who prefer to die young generally do not expect to have many positive experiences in old age, such as being able to travel or getting more respect," says Bowen, a research scientist at the Vienna Institute of Demography and the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna. "On the other hand, people who prefer to live to their 90s or beyond generally have fewer negative expectations for their own old age, such as being lonely of having a serious illness."

But why? Why do some see old age as a robust chapter of life and others see it as a creepy last-gasp before death? That is a central part of the paper, co-written by Vegard Skirbekk, a Columbia professor and a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Bowen explains:

Throughout their lives people gather and process information about the aging process and life in old age. How people process information about old age and aging ... depends on any number of factors, including a person's personality, their socioeconomic resources, and how important information about old age and aging is for the person. People may therefore differ with regards to how they feel about old age and longevity because they have been exposed to different information about old age and aging, and also because people vary widely in how they process this information.

So Who Wants to Go Young and Who Doesn't?

Researchers found that a person's PLE had little to do with age, education or gender. African-Americans generally preferred a longer life expectancy. Hispanics and others who identified as non-White and non African-American generally preferred a shorter one. Self-rated health was associated with preferring a longer life. Those who said they weren't "too happy" had a shorter PLE.

Another point the paper raises, especially pertinent to those who want to call it quits after 80 years or so, suggests that people underestimate their ability to deal with aging issues.

You think it's hard getting old? Is that why you want to check out early?

It might not be quite as bad as you're making it out to be.

"People may just not be aware of some of the positive aspects of aging. Most research suggests that wellbeing is actually quite stable across much of the life course," Bowen says. "In other words, it seems that people are generally able to adapt quite well to how their life circumstances change with age."