Organ donation and transplantation have made many advances in recent years; they no longer exclude or limit people over age 50. Here are five things you need to know about them today.
1. When you say yes to donation, it’s legally binding.
When many people first got their driver’s licenses, there was often an opportunity to indicate their desire to be an organ donor. A sticker or a symbol on the license let others know, but the next-of-kin could refuse to honor their loved one’s request.
Now all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands have enacted First Person Authorization to replace the previous “wish” to be an organ donor. This legislation makes one’s intent to be an organ donor after death legally binding, similar to having a living will or advance directive. The family is relieved from having to make a decision during a difficult time, avoiding disagreement among family members.
2. If you think you’re too old to be an organ donor, think again.
A woman in her 60s is alive and has a healthy liver today, thanks to 95-year-old Cecil Lockhart of West Virginia. Cecil registered to be an organ donor after his son, Stanley, died and became an organ and tissue donor in 2010, ultimately saving or healing 75 other people. With his own passing, Cecil gave “the gift of life” to someone else.
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“The good news is someone over 50 can donate,” says Candy Wells, director of organ utilization at LifeCenter Northwest, a federally designated nonprofit organ procurement organization for Alaska, Montana, north Idaho and Washington. “As the need continues to grow for lifesaving transplants, we continue to partner with transplant programs to explore what is possible. With all donors, including advanced-age donors, we explore organ function of each organ, and if there is a possibility of saving even one life, we move forward.”
3. Organ recipients are most often 50-plus.
The U.S. provided more than 41,000 organs for transplant in 2021. And similar to recent years, about 62 percent of the organs were allocated to people 50 and older.
Normal wear-and-tear also causes organ function to decline after half a century. Obesity, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney disease can lead to organ failure. Sometimes the only hope is a transplant.
4. Research especially needs donors age 50 and older.
“Every part of the body has a researcher waiting to learn from it,” says Gina Dunne Smith, executive director of the International Institute for the Advancement of Medicine. “A majority of our researchers seek organs and tissues from donors from age 50 all the way up to 70 and 80. We get about 1,500 research organs a year. The average age is mid to upper 50s. We recently received donated gifts from an 82-year-old whose family said yes to organ donation and transplant.”
Even when organs aren’t able to be transplanted, they can provide researchers with something rare: human tissue to learn about disorders and diseases that can affect everyone. “Every donation allows for a step toward treating, improving or curing a patient,” Smith notes. “We have a pancreas researcher who says, ‘Donors of research organs are heroes in the afterlife in a way that they could never know.’”
5. Donating a kidney isn’t without risks.
Living organ donation makes the news almost every week. In 2020, 5,730 people donated a kidney or portion of their liver to someone needing a transplant to survive. Of these donors, about 35 percent were over age 50; 96 percent donated a kidney.
While the recipient enjoys a positive outcome and improved quality of life, potential living donors should consider their risks. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), donors can experience a longer recovery than their recipients; chronic pain; a 25 to 35 percent loss of function in their remaining kidney; or protein in their urine, a possible sign of diabetes. About one in five donors will develop high blood pressure.
There may be financial risks, too: costs for travel, lodging and meals, as well as lost wages due to time off for testing, surgery and recovery. Some donors may have difficulty getting life, disability or health insurance. Insurance companies may charge higher premiums after the donation.
How can older adults support organ donation?
Nearly 106,000 people are waiting for a transplant; a name is added to the waiting list every nine minutes. Not everyone is able to be an organ donor, even if they register, but registering is the first big step. To ensure you have First Person Authorization, register with your state or add “organ donor” during your next driver’s license renewal.
Suzanne Ball, RN, is a contributing writer who worked in the field of organ and tissue donation and transplantation for 25 years. She is a freelance writer who specializes in medical and health topics.