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Clin Geriatr Med. 2003 Feb;19(1):205-24.

Respiratory failure in elderly patients.

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Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 5501 Hopkins Bayview Circle, Baltimore, MD 21224-6801, USA.


Elderly individuals comprise an increasing proportion of the population and represent a progressively expanding number of patients admitted to the ICU. Because of underlying pulmonary disease, loss of muscle mass, and other comorbid conditions, older persons are at increased risk of developing respiratory failure. Recognition of this vulnerability and the adoption of proactive measures to prevent decompensation requiring intrusive support are major priorities together with clear delineation of patients' wishes regarding the extent of support desired should clinical deterioration occur. Further, the development of coordinated approaches to identify patients at risk for respiratory failure and strategies to prevent the need for intubation, such as the use of NIV in appropriate patients, are crucial. As soon as endotracheal intubation and mechanical ventilation are implemented strategies that facilitate the liberation of elderly patients from the ventilator are especially important. The emphasis on a team approach, which characterizes geriatric medicine, is essential in coordinating the skills of multiple health care professionals in this setting. Respiratory failure can neither be effectively diagnosed nor managed in isolation. Integration with all other aspects of care is essential. Patient vulnerability to nosocomial complications and the "cascade effect" of these problems such as the effects of medications and invasive supportive procedures all impact on respiratory care of elderly patients. For example, prolonged mechanical ventilation may be required long after resolution of the underlying cause of respiratory failure because of unrecognized and untreated delirium or residual effects of small doses of sedative and/or analgesic agents or other medications in elderly patients with altered drug metabolism. The deleterious impact of the foreign and sometimes threatening ICU environment and/or sleep deprivation on the patient's course are too often overlooked because the physician focuses management on physiologic measurements, mechanical ventilator settings, and other technologic nuances of care [40]. Review of the literature suggests that the development of respiratory failure in patients with certain disease processes such as COPD, IPF, and ARDS in elderly patients may lead to worsened outcome but it appears that the disease process itself, rather than the age of the patient, is the major determinant of outcome. Additional studies suggest that other comorbid factors may be more important than age. Only when comorbid processes are taken into account should decisions be made about the efficacy of instituting mechanical ventilation. In addition, because outcome prediction appears to be more accurate for groups of patients rather than for individual patients a well-structured therapeutic trial of instituting mechanical ventilation, even if comorbidities are present, may be indicated in certain patients if appropriately informed patients wish to pursue this course. This approach requires careful and realistic definition of potential outcomes, focus on optimizing treatment of the reversible components of the illness, and continuous communication with the patient and family. Although many clinicians share a nihilistic view regarding the potential usefulness of mechanical ventilation in elderly patients few data warrant this negative prognostication and more outcome studies are needed to delineate the optimum application of this element of supportive care. As with other interventions individualization of the decision must take into account the patient's premorbid status, concomitant conditions, the nature of the precipitating illness and its prospects for improvement, and most important, patient preferences. In this determination pursuing the course most consistent with the patient's wishes is essential and it must be appreciated that caregivers' impressions regarding the vigor of support desired by the patient are often erroneous. The SUPPORT investigators observed that clinicians often underestimated the degree of intervention desired by older patients assuming that less care would be desired [13]. Thus, as in other circumstances, effective communication and elicitation of patients' preferences regarding management options is crucial in the management of respiratory failure. The frequent discordance between patient preferences and the wishes of family members or other surrogate decision makers impose major clinical challenges and also mandates further investigation.

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