Older adults' beliefs about physician-estimated life expectancy: a cross-sectional survey

BMC Fam Pract. 2006 Feb 11:7:9. doi: 10.1186/1471-2296-7-9.


Background: Estimates of life expectancy assist physicians and patients in medical decision-making. The time-delayed benefits for many medical treatments make an older adult's life expectancy estimate particularly important for physicians. The purpose of this study is to assess older adults' beliefs about physician-estimated life expectancy.

Methods: We performed a mixed qualitative-quantitative cross-sectional study in which 116 healthy adults aged 70+ were recruited from two local retirement communities. We interviewed them regarding their beliefs about physician-estimated life expectancy in the context of a larger study on cancer screening beliefs. Semi-structured interviews of 80 minutes average duration were performed in private locations convenient to participants. Demographic characteristics as well as cancer screening beliefs and beliefs about life expectancy were measured. Two independent researchers reviewed the open-ended responses and recorded the most common themes. The research team resolved disagreements by consensus.

Results: This article reports the life-expectancy results portion of the larger study. The study group (n = 116) was comprised of healthy, well-educated older adults, with almost a third over 85 years old, and none meeting criteria for dementia. Sixty-four percent (n = 73) felt that their physicians could not correctly estimate their life expectancy. Sixty-six percent (n = 75) wanted their physicians to talk with them about their life expectancy. The themes that emerged from our study indicate that discussions of life expectancy could help older adults plan for the future, maintain open communication with their physicians, and provide them knowledge about their medical conditions.

Conclusion: The majority of the healthy older adults in this study were open to discussions about life expectancy in the context of discussing cancer screening tests, despite awareness that their physicians' estimates could be inaccurate. Since about a third of participants perceived these discussions as not useful or even harmful, physicians should first ascertain patients' preferences before discussing their life expectancies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Housing for the Elderly / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Life Expectancy*
  • Male
  • Mass Screening / statistics & numerical data
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • North Carolina
  • Physician-Patient Relations*