How Did We Get to “More Is Always Better”? and Other Essential Questions on Aging

November 2015
David Vlahov

Anthropologist Sharon Kaufman is one of the original members of the Institute for Health & Aging (IHA), which on November 9 celebrated its 30th anniversary. The event brought together scientists who had flourished in the Institute and made significant contributions to our understanding of health at the individual and societal level.

At the celebration, Kaufman drew on her recently released book, Ordinary Medicine: Extraordinary Treatments, Longer Lives, and Where to Draw the Line (Duke University Press, 2015), to speak about the struggle in health care between the desire to prolong life and the desire to avoid crossing the line to “too much” care. Exploring that dilemma led her to examine the larger engines of the biomedical economy: the research and insurance industries and their impact on what we do when life is at stake.

Kaufman spoke of “the hidden chain of connections among science, politics, industry and insurance that drives the US health care system,” noting especially that clinical trials sponsored by the multibillion-dollar biomedical research engine are at the heart of our increasing reliance on evidence-based care, which can be a good thing. But it’s important to remain aware that in the past 25 years, the number of trials that private and profit-driven pharma, device and biotech companies fund has more than doubled.

As these trials generate more evidence of therapeutic value, they also generate an ever-increasing number of standard – that is, difficult to refuse – treatment options. Our prioritizing of new therapies and technologies magnifies this effect, because it influences our collective perspective on the timing of death. Today in the US, says Kaufman, we consider most deaths premature, regardless of the age of the deceased.

As evidence of the phenomenon, she spoke of the implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD). When clinical trials showed good survival rates and Medicare began to reimburse for its use, the ICD became a therapy that shifted from unthinkable a decade or so ago to routine and standard care for older persons with moderate to severe heart disease in the US. The floodgates were open.

Here’s the catch, notes Kaufman. In treating a potentially lethal arrhythmia, the ICD prevents sudden death (the silent heart attack in the night) – precisely the kind of death many say they actually want late in life. Yet the device is difficult to refuse, because doing so seems to go against medical progress and common sense.

Kaufman’s eloquent presentation distills the essence of a societal quandary nurses, physicians, patients and families must face together. It also exemplifies the value of our Institute for Health & Aging.

The IHA has been a vital incubator – not just for investigators, but also for work that has built models for improving health and, more fundamentally, how we think about health. Past work includes that of giants such as Carroll Estes, Bob Newcomer, Dorothy Rice and Patrick Fox, all of whom produced groundbreaking work on everything from Social Security and Medicare to long-term care, Alzheimer’s disease and the societal costs of tobacco, alcohol and drug use.

Today, in addition to Kaufman and IHA Director Wendy Max, the groundbreaking work emerges from other marvelous investigators, including a few the celebration highlighted: Marsha Michie on bioethics and genomics, Julene Johnson on arts and aging or Brooke Hollister on understanding the impact of reform on Medicare and Medicaid.

In each of these cases, the Institute’s investigators ask the absolutely essential questions about how scientific and medical advances change how we age and how we die. Their role and expertise have never been more important.

 

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