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End-of-life care for patients with dementia in the United States: institutional realities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 October 2012

Michael Gusmano*
Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management, New York Medical College, New York, USA
*Correspondence to: Michael Gusmano, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management, New York Medical College, 515 Munger Hall, Valhalla, NY 10595, USA. Email:


Few are satisfied with end-of-life care in the United States. For families and friends of people with dementia, end-of-life care is particularly frustrating. Providing better end-of-life care to people with dementia is urgent because the prevalence of the disease is increasing rapidly. Dementia is currently the seventh leading cause of death in the United States and fifth leading cause of death among people aged 65 years and older. By 2050, there will be around 19 million people with Alzheimer's disease. This article reviews ethical and policy challenges associated with providing end-of-life care for people with dementia in the United States. I explain how disagreements about the meaning of futility lead to poor care for people with dementia. Most people agree that we should not provide care that is futile, but there is little agreement about how futility should be defined. US policies and politics clearly tip the balance in the direction of treatment, even in the face of strong evidence that such care does more harm than good. Although we may never reach a consensus, it is important to address these questions and think about how to develop policies that respect the different values.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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