Will to live in the terminally ill

Lancet. 1999 Sep 4;354(9181):816-9. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(99)80011-7.


Background: Complex biomedical and psychosocial considerations figure prominently in the debate about euthanasia and assisted suicide. No study to date, however, has examined the extent to which a dying patient's will to live fluctuates as death approaches.

Methods: This study examined patients with cancer in palliative care. Will to live was measured twice daily throughout the hospital stay on a self-report 100 mm visual analogue scale. This scale was incorporated into the Edmonton symptom assessment system, a series of visual analogue scales measuring pain, nausea, shortness of breath, appetite, drowsiness, depression, sense of well-being, anxiety, and activity. Maximum and median fluctuations in will-to-live ratings, separated by 12 h, 24 h, 7 days, and 30 days, were calculated for each patient.

Findings: Of 585 patients admitted to palliative care during the study period (November, 1993, to May, 1995), 168 (29%; aged 31-89 years) met criteria of cognitive and physical fitness and agreed to take part. The pattern of median changes in will-to-live score suggested that will to live was stable (median changes <10 mm on 100 mm scale for all time intervals). By contrast, the average maximum changes in will-to-live score were substantial (12 h 33.1 mm, 24 h 35.8 mm, 7 days 48.8 mm, 30 days 68.0 mm). In a series of stepwise regression models carried out at 12 h, 24 h, and 1-4 weeks after admission, the four main predictor variables of will to live were depression, anxiety, shortness of breath, and sense of well-being, with the prominence of these variables changing over time.

Interpretation: Among dying patients, will to live shows substantial fluctuation, with the explanation for these changes shifting as death approaches.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Attitude to Death*
  • Euthanasia
  • Euthanasia, Active, Voluntary
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Status Schedule
  • Neoplasms / psychology
  • Palliative Care
  • Suicide, Assisted
  • Terminally Ill / psychology*