Are we living too long?

Breakthroughs, life-saving treatments add years to our lives

Published On: Oct 02 2012 06:26:47 AM EDT   Updated On: Oct 02 2012 06:20:00 AM EDT

Medical technology has brought us breakthroughs and life-saving treatments, allowing millions to live longer, but at what point is it too much?

Today, from innovative surgeries to potent drugs to high-tech machines, there are more ways to keep us alive than ever before.  Judy Lucas knows.  Her husband of 39 years, George Lucas, was told he had fatal pancreatic cancer.

"We were shocked, absolutely shocked," said Judy.

George tried chemo and radiation to give himself more time, but the side effects became unbearable.

"He finally said, 'that's it,'" Judy said.

George decided he wanted to die with his loved ones by his side and without harsh treatments wearing him down.  It's a manner of death Dr. Ken Murray says most physicians would choose themselves.

"These things, I think most doctors don't look at as prolonging life. They look at it as prolonging death," explained Murray, who wrote How Doctors Die.

Murray's blog has become an internet sensation. In it he writes about how so many of his colleagues, when it comes to their own care, refuse dialysis, ventilators and most commonly resuscitation.

"We know how terrible the results are from CPR," Murray said. "I've done it hundreds of times, and I can count on one hand the people who actually did ok."

He describes aggressive treatment at the end of life as "misery we would not inflict on a terrorist" but says patients often request therapies to the very end.

"People are sicker now before they die than at any time in human history," said Ira Byock, M.D., a palliative care specialist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, and author of The Best Care Possible.

He says dying is becoming harder for patients and their families.

"The fact is there are worse things than having someone you love die. Most basically, it's having the person you love die badly," said Byock.

Dr. Heidi Klepin agrees some may be treated for too long, but she warns others, especially older patients may be undertreated.

"Don't make an assumption for example that an 80 year old can't benefit and tolerate standard therapy for a given cancer," said Klepin, M.D., MS, an assistant professor of internal medicine hematology and oncology at Wake Forest Baptist Health.

In one study just 50 percent of patients 75 years or older with stage three colon cancer received chemo after surgery compared to 87 percent of younger patients. A recent British report states "under-treatment" is a contributing factor in about 14-thousand avoidable cancer deaths in patients 75 and older each year.

Doctors told 91-year-old Bill Owen not to try any treatment when he was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma.

"The doctor that we had at that time said to come home and enjoy what we had," said Barbara Owen, Bill's wife.

Bill got a second opinion and five years after chemo and radiation he's going strong. The right treatment saved his life.

"I still go all day long," said Bill.

For George and Judy, hospice care has made a difficult time a little easier.

"You get the chance to say things about loving, and yeah, it's been good," an emotional Judy said.

Aggressive treatment at the end of life is also expensive. It can cost up to $10,000 a day to maintain someone in ICU. By law, Medicare cannot reject any treatment based on cost.