Revisiting the biomedicalization of aging: clinical trends and ethical challenges

Gerontologist. 2004 Dec;44(6):731-8. doi: 10.1093/geront/44.6.731.


Developments in the realms of medical innovation and geriatric clinical intervention impact our understanding of the nature of late life, the possibilities for health in advanced age, medical decision making, and family responsibility in ways that could not have been predicted 15 years ago. This essay begins to map new forms of biomedicalization in the U.S. and to underscore their emergence in a new ethical field. We suggest that a new kind of ethical knowledge is emerging through "routine" clinical care, and we offer examples from the following interventions: cardiac procedures, kidney dialysis, and kidney transplant. This new ethical knowledge is characterized by the difficulty of saying "no" to life-extending interventions, regardless of age. We explore the intensification of the biomedicalization of old age through a discussion of three features of the new ethical field: (a) the ways in which routine medical care overshadows choice; (b) the transformation of the technological imperative to a moral imperative; and (c) the coupling of hope with the normalization and routinization of life-extending interventions. We argue that societal expectations about longevity and standard medical care come together today in a shifting ethics of normalcy, with unexplored socio-cultural ramifications.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged*
  • Biotechnology* / ethics
  • Decision Making
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Geriatrics* / ethics
  • Geriatrics* / trends
  • Humans
  • Life Expectancy
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / ethics
  • United States