The term “elderly” must be avoided in medicine

According to Dr Javad Hekmat-Panah, a neurologist from University of Chicago, doctors may soon need to watch when they term a patient “elderly”. Dr. Hekmat-Panah feels that that this term is anachronistic and possibly offensive just as words like “idiot” or “imbecile” is. He has written an opinion piece in the latest episode of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) emphasizing his point.

Image Credit: Srisakorn Wonglakorn / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Srisakorn Wonglakorn / Shutterstock

According to Dr. Hekmat-Panah most people who visit doctors these days are over 65 and they face a wide range of health conditions. He writes, “[It – the term elderly] offers no useful information about any of this. In medicine it can evoke false ideas about the person being described as elderly in the listener’s mind, introduce unfair social biases and generalisations, and generate ill conceived policies.”

Dr. Hekmat-Panah feels that aging is not a disease per se and this term marks out the older individuals from other patients. He writes, “Aging is not a disease, it is a progressive biological change and there may be vast differences in the health of people who are aged 65 and over. One older patient may not be able to tolerate a medical treatment because of accumulated comorbidities, but another of the same age without comorbidities may easily do so.”

He said calling someone “elderly” violates their human rights and also is against the principles of medicine. He explains that in some cultures the term elderly refers to “over 65” while in others it is post retirement which might be lower. He added that medicine is a biological science and the terminology needs to be consistent worldwide. With aging this consistency is absent and there is ambiguity. He pointed out that people retire later these days and also enjoy good health long after their retirement or after they turn 65. This means that the need for labelling them as “elderly” to conjure up an image of an old, inform and frail individual is unwarranted.

He writes, “We are not born with biases; they are attitudes or behaviors that we acquire. Once formed, however, these attitudes can remain hidden within us like a disease. Unless we diagnose these biases and make an effort to excise them, they can erupt later on.”

He signs off, “My suggestion that we avoid the term elderly in medicine goes beyond the word itself to encompass all that it connotes: stereotypes, unwarranted impressions, and bias. This is essentially a human rights issue. Medicine is the science and art of individualised communication, evaluation, recommendation, and treatment. Each patient has the right to be treated as an individual, according to medical standards based on their specific age, general condition, and comorbidities. To label everyone above a certain age as elderly and to treat them identically defies this principle, which should be at the heart of medicine.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

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Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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