Old age, life extension, and the character of medical choice

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2006 Jul;61(4):S175-84. doi: 10.1093/geronb/61.4.s175.


Objectives: This qualitative, ethnographic study explores the character and extent of medical choice for life-extending procedures on older adults. It examines the sociomedical features of treatment that shape health care provider understandings of the nature of choice, and it illustrates the effects of treatment patterns on patients' perspectives of their options for life extension.

Methods: By using participant observation in outpatient clinics and face-to-face interviews, we spoke with a convenience sample of 38 health professionals and 132 patients aged 70 or older who had undergone life-extending medical procedures. We asked providers and patients open-ended questions about their understandings of medical choice for cardiac procedures, dialysis, and kidney transplant.

Results: Neither patients nor health professionals made choices about the start or continuation of life-extending interventions that were uninformed by the routine pathways of treatment; the pressures of the technological imperative; or the growing normalization, ease, and safety of treating ever older patients. We found a difference among cardiac, dialysis, and transplant procedures regarding the locus of responsibility for maintaining and extending life.

Discussion: Provider and patient practices together reveal how the standard use of medical procedures at ever older ages trumps patient-initiated decision making.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Aging / psychology
  • California / epidemiology
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Coronary Artery Bypass / statistics & numerical data
  • Decision Making*
  • Dialysis / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Health Services / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Kidney Transplantation / statistics & numerical data
  • Longevity*
  • Male