Concerns about rendering futile care, the financial costs of mechanical ventilation, and aging of the population make it important to analyze the benefit of aggressive therapy for respiratory failure in the elderly.
This study is a retrospective review of 1860 patients treated with mechanical ventilation in the medical intensive care unit for more than 3 hours between 1974 and 1985. Patients were assigned to one of nine diagnostic groups, and 10 premorbid chronic illnesses or organ system dysfunctions were recorded. Survival to discharge was determined for all patients, and the duration of survival after discharge was determined for patients aged 80 years and older. Two hundred eighty-two patients aged 80 years and older were compared with 1578 patients less than 80 years of age.
Fifteen percent of patients treated with mechanical ventilation were 80 years of age or older. Forty-four percent of patients younger than 80 years, and 30.9% of patients aged 80 years and older survived to discharge. Patients aged 80 years or older with preexisting renal disease, liver disease, cancer, systemic illness, or chronic gastrointestinal disease with malnutrition had only a 7% survival compared with 29% for younger patients. For patients without these premorbid conditions (80% of both the younger and older groups) survival among the elderly was better, even though it was still poorer than for younger patients (38% vs 49%). Elderly patients requiring more than 15 days of mechanical ventilation had a 9% survival compared with 36% for younger patients.
A subgroup of patients 80 years of age or older can be identified whose chance for survival from respiratory failure is so poor that withholding or withdrawing treatment with mechanical ventilation may be appropriate. For the majority of elderly patients, short-term survival is nearly as good as in younger patients. Further studies are needed that assess long-term survival and functional recovery after treatment for respiratory failure so that elderly patients and their physicians can better decide whether or not to choose treatment with mechanical ventilation.(Arch Intern Med. 1993;153:1657-1662)