End-of-life decision-making and terminal sedation among very old patients

Gerontology. 2009;55(1):99-105. doi: 10.1159/000163445. Epub 2008 Oct 9.


Background: About half of the persons who die in developed countries are very old (aged 80 years or older) and this proportion is still rising. In general, there is little information available concerning the circumstances and quality of the end of life of this group.

Objective: This study aims (1) to describe the incidence and characteristics of medical end-of-life decisions with a possible or certain life-shortening effect (ELDs) and terminal sedation among very old patients who died nonsuddenly, (2) to describe the characteristics of the preceding decision-making process, and (3) to compare this with the deaths of younger patients.

Methods: A sample of 5,005 death certificates was selected from all deaths in Flanders (Belgium) in the second half of 2001 (before euthanasia was legalized). Questionnaires were mailed to the certifying physicians.

Results: Response rate was 58.9%. An ELD was made for 53.6% very old (aged 80+) patients who died nonsuddenly (vs. 63.3% for the younger patients). Use of life-ending drugs occurred among 1.1% (six times less frequently than in younger patients), with no euthanasia cases, pain and symptom alleviation with a possible life-shortening effect among 27.3% (two times less frequently), and withholding or withdrawing life-prolonging treatments among 25.2% (slightly more frequently). Terminal sedation occurred among 6.9% of the cases, two times less frequently than for the younger patients. ELDs were not often discussed with very old patients. Among competent patients this was less than compared with younger patients.

Conclusion: ELDs are less common for very old than for younger patients. Physicians seem to have a more reluctant attitude towards the use of lethal drugs, terminal sedation and participation in decision-making when dealing with very old patients. Advance care planning should increase the involvement of very old competent and noncompetent patients in end-of-life decision-making.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Advance Care Planning*
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Attitude to Death*
  • Belgium
  • Decision Making*
  • Deep Sedation*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Quality of Life
  • Right to Die
  • Suicide, Assisted
  • Surveys and Questionnaires