“Elderly” – an outdated and potentially harmful term?

The term elderly has no clear meaning and evokes stereotypes.

Healthcare professionals should stop using the term “elderly” and instead focus on providing individualised care.

Dr. Javad Hekmat-Panah, a Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the University of Chicago, claims that the term “elderly” is outdated, conjures up bias, and harms patients.

In an article published by the BMJ, Dr Hekmat-Panah condemns the use of the term as it “has no clear definition” and risks healthcare professionals having a ‘clinical bias against older people’.

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Dr. Hekmat-Panah writes; “Medicine is based on biological science. It has an internationally consistent terminology, which is used for diagnosis, communication, and treatment of diseases based on individual age, severity of illness, and comorbidities. The ambiguous term elderly offers no useful information about any of this.”

Before adding; “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. I’d argue that the term elderly is like “imbecile” or “idiot,” which have become anachronistic and offensive; its use must be avoided in medicine. Stating a patient’s actual age is more appropriate and more informative.”

He argues that aging is progressive biological change rather than a progressive disease and therefore the assumption that a patient would not be appropriate for, or tolerate, a medical treatment simply because they have been labeled as “elderly” in unjust and demonstrates a clinical bias.

Dr Hekmat-Panah suggests that healthcare professionals stop using the term “elderly” altogether and instead focus on providing individualised and person-centered care – treating patients based upon their individual age and clinical presentation rather than an ambiguous term.

He adds; “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.”

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