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Scrutinizing the Ethics of Tube Feeding in Demented

WebMD Health News

Jan. 20, 2000 (Atlanta) -- One of the most agonizing decisions a person may ever have to face is what to do with a dying loved one. When a person lapses into dementia, for whatever reason, should a feeding tube be used when they can't eat on their own?

The answer, of course, varies with who is asked, and from what perspective the decision is made. A Harvard Medical School professor argues in an editorial in today's issue of TheNew England Journal of Medicine that most patients with advanced Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia should not be offered tube feeding.

"Tube feeding in this population does not seem to prolong life," Muriel R. Gillick, MD, tells WebMD. "As best we can tell, [feeding] tubes are not necessary to prevent suffering, and people who think religious doctrine dictates tube feeding may be misinformed."

Geriatric expert Christine Cassel, MD, applauds Gillick's commentary. "What Dr. Gillick has highlighted so beautifully in this article is that [inability to eat] signals the end stage of the disease, and we ought to be thinking about this as a terminal illness and treating these patients with hospice," she tells WebMD. "The knee-jerk approach, which has been widespread in the U.S., is that if someone stops eating, you should put a tube in and not think of it as part of the course of the advanced disease, particularly with dementia." Cassel, who reviewed the commentary for WebMD, is chairman of the Henry L. Schwartz department of geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Though tubes placed in the stomach, called gastrostomy tubes, are not used in the majority of people with dementia, Gillick notes that the precise frequency is not really known. Based on 1995 figures, 121,000 elderly patients received gastrostomy tubes, and about 30% of these had dementia.

Irrespective of frequency, few studies have shown any benefit in providing feeding tubes to this population. "[I]t has been remarkably difficult to demonstrate any difference in longevity between [dementia] patients with feeding tubes and those without feeding tubes," Gillick writes. One 1997 study found no difference in survival rates between nursing home patients with advanced dementia who were fed by hand and those who were tube fed; other studies have confirmed this finding. Nevertheless, these studies are observational, and it is possible, she writes, that certain subgroups, such as "persons with vascular dementia who have difficulty swallowing because of a small brain-stem stroke," might benefit from tube feeding.

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