Practical ethical issues of dialysis in the elderly

Semin Nephrol. 1996 Jul;16(4):339-52.


The liberalization of acceptance criteria for dialysis and the progressive increase of the elderly population overall have increased the number of elderly dialysis patients worldwide. The main underlying diseases leading to end stage renal disease (ESRD) in the elderly patients are hypertension and diabetes, but in many patients, the cause of renal disease is unknown. The principal form of renal replacement therapy (RRT) in the elderly is hospital hemodialysis. The 1995 annual report of the US Renal Data System (USRDS) indicated that from 1986 to 1990 for patients who were older than 65 years, the two major types of vascular access were arteriovenous fistula and synthetic polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) graft (more than 80% of the total). The elderly on hemodialysis have a higher rate of access morbidity, and, in them, the most common hemodialysis-related complications in the elderly are hypotension, arrthythmias, and gastrointestinal bleeding. Peritoneal dialysis is the only method that permits home treatment for most elderly people, the frequency of peritonitis and catheter-related complications are similar between young and elderly patients. Incidence of malnutrition increases significantly with age; the quality of life of these patients varies according to different investigators, who described results that are lower, similar, or better than those in younger patients. Not unexpectedly, mortality is higher among the elderly dialysis patients in whom cardiovascular diseases and infections are the most common causes of death. In elderly patients, an adequate social support system, of which the family unit is the crucial component, is an important element in any form of chronic dialysis. ESRD treatment in the elderly raises many ethical issues and dilemmas. Nephrologists, citizens, politicians, and bureaucrats are concerned about the high cost of long-term therapy. Conflicts over treatment futility and rationing are inevitable. The financial restrictions on dialysis resources have had a powerful impact on patient selection; when the health care resources become limited, the elderly are the first group to be considered expendable. The most common dilemma faced by the nephrologist is the withholding and/or withdrawing of treatment from older patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Humans
  • Nutrition Disorders / etiology
  • Peritoneal Dialysis, Continuous Ambulatory
  • Quality of Life
  • Renal Dialysis* / adverse effects
  • Renal Dialysis* / mortality
  • Renal Dialysis* / psychology