I've never understood people who say things like, "Well, I want to live to be 100 in perfect health, and then die peacefully in my sleep". The contradiction in that sort of statement should be obvious. Healthy people don't die in their sleep, "peacefully" or otherwise. You don't hear about too many 25-year-olds dying suddenly of heart attacks or strokes during their nightly slumber. There are a few -- some people end up expiring suddenly in their twenties or thirties due to undiagnosed cardiovascular dysfunction and other similar conditions, but the majority of people found dead in their beds are elderly.
When people in their twenties die, it's usually considered tragic. When babies are found dead in their cribs, it's referred to by a name ("Sudden Infant Death Syndrome"). But when elderly people die, in bed or otherwise, there tends to be a curious tone of, "Well, at least they went peacefully".
On one hand, I see this as somewhat tasteless; after all, why should Sudden Grandma Death Syndrome be any less undesirable than Sudden Infant Death syndrome? But on the other hand, I do understand where this reaction is coming from -- a sudden death is considered more desirable than a long drawn-out period of pain and suffering. Healthy life extension research aims to combat the pain and suffering -- not just the death part of the equation.
Quality and length of life are inseparable in my estimation: a quality life will last a long time by definition (barring accidents) since it won't include terrible illness and deterioration, and people living these quality lives won't have any reason to wish for the hastening of death.
Nevertheless, there's an important bit of cultural engineering to be done here that I think could go a long way toward improving support for longevity research. This cultural engineering involves recognizing the value of our elderly citizens.
First of all, elderly people are still persons -- self-aware beings with the ability to learn, love, and take joy in living. They're not any more "expendable" than any other sentient person, and my own personal philosophy (which is not religious, but ethical) does not allow for the consideration of any sentient individual as expendable. No matter how old they are.
Second of all, people who have lived a very long time tend to have accumulated considerable knowledge and have had many years to reflect on and combine this knowledge. That is, they possess wisdom, and wisdom is something that you can't inject, simulate, or substitute for. Wisdom develops over time as a result of experience and learning.
I'm sure many readers can think of an elderly person they've known over the course of their lives -- a grandparent, a neighbor, a great-uncle -- who brought the sort of fascinating perspective to their existence that only comes from years of reflection and observation. It is my contention that many humans never even get the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their own accumulated wisdom, because as soon as it starts becoming significant, their bodies fail them and they pass into oblivion.
Third of all, the presence of retired persons in volunteer work is a testament to the fact that older people still want to participate and make a positive difference in the world. My boyfriend's parents have a neighbor who is in her nineties who still volunteers at a local hospital, drives her great-grandsons around (and often spends the day running after them), and is certainly not interested in slowing down.
Endeavors like the Supercentenarian Research Foundation point in a very positive direction as far as both the cultural engineering and the scientific aspects of longevity research go. From their website:
The mission of The Supercentenarian Research Foundation (SRF) is to promote scientific research into the causes of aging initially by funding investigations into its effects in supercentenarians (people who have attained the age of 110 years or greater). The knowledge gained from this research can then provide the opportunity to develop methodologies to improve the health and longevity of supercentenarians, their children, centenarians (those aged 100-109 years), and those of us who would otherwise never achieve such an exceptional life span.
This is an excellent mission, not only because it seeks to find means to direct action to improve the health of older persons, but because it recognizes the value of all lives, regardless of how long the person has already lived. Obviously, people are living longer than ever before. There are an estimated 300 people worldwide aged 110 years or older -- and these people deserve the same right to good medical care as anyone else. People of different ages have unique health needs, and recognizing these unique needs can improve health care across the board for all individuals.
Two centuries ago, pediatrics wasn't even a field of medicine; children were simply treated as "smaller versions of adults", and the unique developmental characteristics of children were not taken into account to the degree necessary. However, it became clear over time that people in different stages of life required different care in order to maintain health optimally. It's time to fully recognize the personhood and health needs of people of all ages, and researching the biology of supercentenarians seems like an excellent start toward such ends.