Skip to content

50+: Live Better, Longer

Who Gets the Last Say?

Opinions vary on the right time to end aggressive treatment.
Font Size
A
A
A
By
WebMD Feature

As the director of the intensive care unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, Jeff Groeger, MD, often cares for patients who have been told they have little time left to live.

Once the bad news sinks in, he must help them decide whether they should choose the most aggressive medical treatment available. "It stinks," he says -- meaning the emotional drain on both health care providers and loved ones.

Recommended Related to Healthy Seniors

Keeping Seniors Safe in Their Own Homes

Does your home seem less accommodating than it used to? Join the club. That tends to happen as we age. Toilets are suddenly too low, cabinets too high, and steps and loose rugs make getting around perilous, especially if you have stiff, arthritic joints. Karen Kassik discovered this in 2002, when she brought her then 66-year-old mother to live in her two-bedroom home in Winter Park, Fla. "I found out very quickly how inadequate this little house was," she recalls. Kassik, 45, used her background...

Read the Keeping Seniors Safe in Their Own Homes article > >

It's also a complicated process. Everything from the patient's age, to the chances of surviving aggressive treatment, to his or her wishes for end-of-life care must be taken into account.

Such difficult decisions will become more commonplace. The number of aged in America is growing at an astounding pace, and controversy is building over how to treat those who are sick.

Some believe elderly patients should not be put through aggressive treatments because they are less likely to survive the heroic efforts. But others believe a bias against the elderly may lead to beneficial care being withheld.

Studying Survival Rates

Now a new study on the relationship between age, intensity of treatment and survival of serious illness has yielded some interesting findings. Researchers at five teaching hospitals across the country looked at 9,105 patients, aged 18 to 100, who were hospitalized with serious illnesses. They looked at the connection between age and the likelihood of survival six months later -- and especially at whether the intensity of the treatment affected the outcome. After six months, more than half the patients were still alive, according to Mary Beth Hamel, MPH, MD, the lead author of the study and a researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Not surprisingly, the older the patient, the more likely he or she was to die during the six-month follow-up period. What was surprising was that the difference in death rates was smaller than expected. A 55-year-old, for instance, had a 44% chance of dying in the follow-up period; an 85-year-old, 60%. How severe the patient's illness was turned out to have more to do with survival than age did.

Researchers say they cannot tell from the study why older patients did slightly worse overall than their younger counterparts. "People think that as you get older you have no hope of surviving a devastating illness," Hamel says. "That's just not the case."

Today on WebMD

blueberries
Eating for a longer, healthier life.
romantic couple
Dr. Ruth’s bedroom tips for long-term couples.
 
womans finger tied with string
Learn how we remember, and why we forget.
man reviewing building plans
Do you know how to stay healthy as you age?
 
fast healthy snack ideas
Article
how healthy is your mouth
Tool
 
dog on couch
Tool
doctor holding syringe
Slideshow
 
champagne toast
Slideshow
Two women wearing white leotards back to back
Quiz
 
Man feeding woman
Slideshow
two senior women laughing
Article