I know where this phone call is going. I’m on the hospital wards, and a physician in the emergency room downstairs is talking to me about an elderly patient who needs to be admitted to the hospital. The patient is new to me, but the story is familiar: He has several chronic conditions — heart failure, weak kidneys, anemia, Parkinson’s and mild dementia — all tentatively held in check by a fistful of medications. He has been falling more frequently, and his appetite has fallen off, too. Now a stroke threatens to topple this house of cards.
The ER physician and I talk briefly about what can be done. The stroke has driven the patient’s blood pressure through the roof, aggravating his heart failure, which in turn is threatening his fragile kidneys. The stroke is bad enough that, given his disabilities related to his Parkinson’s, he will probably never walk again. In elderly patients with a web of medical conditions, the potential complications of any therapy are often large and the benefits small. It’s a medical checkmate; all moves end in abdication.
I head to the ER. If I’m lucky, the family will accept the news that, in a time when we can separate conjoined twins and reattach severed limbs, people still wear out and die of old age. If I’m lucky, the family will recognize that their loved one’s life is nearing its end.
But I’m not always lucky. The family may ask me to use my physician superpowers to push the patient’s tired body further down the road, with little thought as to whether the additional suffering to get there will be worth it. For many Americans, modern medical advances have made death seem more like an option than an obligation. We want our loved ones to live as long as possible, but our culture has come to view death as a medical failure rather than life’s natural conclusion.
These unrealistic expectations often begin with an overestimation of modern medicine’s power to prolong life, a misconception fueled by the dramatic increase in the American life span over the past century. To hear that the average U.S. life expectancy was 47 years in 1900 and 78 years as of 2007, you might conclude that there weren’t a lot of old people in the old days — and that modern medicine invented old age. But average life expectancy is heavily skewed by childhood deaths, and infant mortality rates were high back then. In 1900, the U.S. infant mortality rate was approximately 100 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. In 2000, the rate was 6.89 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.