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Soc Sci Med. 2007 Oct;65(8):1695-707. Epub 2007 Jul 25.

Current health and preferences for life-prolonging treatments: an application of prospect theory to end-of-life decision making.

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  • 1Center for Applied Research on Aging and Health, Thomas Jefferson University, Edison Building, suite 500, 130 South 9th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, USA.


As a substantial body of research attests, the acceptability of life-prolonging treatment (e.g., tube feeding) tends to be greater among people in worse health than among healthier ones. Because a decision for or against a life-prolonging treatment represents a choice between two prospects-life (usually in poor health) and death-we propose a decision model, Prospect Theory, as a theoretical account of this phenomenon. Prospect Theory postulates that pairs of distant prospects are less distinguishable than pairs of closer ones. Thus, to healthy individuals, the prospects of death and life in poor health would both be remote, and therefore, the distinction between them, small. To less healthy individuals, however, the difference between the same pairs of prospects would appear greater, and therefore, life-prolonging treatment may be more acceptable. In a cross-sectional study of 304 community-dwelling people, aged 60 years and over in the Philadelphia area, USA, preferences for 4 life-prolonging treatments in 9 health scenarios were examined in relation to participants' current health, operationalized as number of deficits in physical functioning. As predicted, less healthy people expressed stronger preferences for all life-prolonging treatments compared with healthier ones, with differences greatest in the worse-health scenarios. Preferences also varied by health scenario, with any treatment preferred in the better health scenarios. Treatment preferences did not differ by type of treatment, depressed mood or any demographic characteristic except race, with African-Americans expressing stronger treatment preferences. Implications for advance care planning are discussed.

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