Older people are willing to take more risks compared to younger people about different medical treatments like vaccines and chemotherapy if they perceive the benefits to be high enough, according to a new study.
Previously it was thought that older people are cautious about various decisions they take and are more likely to avoid risks.
"Given the high financial and personal costs associated with medical-related risk behavior, gaining better insights into adult lifespan changes in medical risk-taking tendencies and perceptions is paramount," the study authors note.
Little data exists on how age affects risk attitudes and perceptions in the medical domain, despite the growing importance of medical decision-making by the elderly.
The study Does Medical Risk-Perception and Risk-Taking Change with Age?< /b> was conducted y Yaniv Hanoch of University of Plymouth, Jonathan J. Rolison of the University of Essex, and Alexandra M. Freund of the University of Zurich. It involved 317 adults, ages 20 to 77 years and was published in the online version of Risk Analysis, a publication of the Society for Risk Analysis.
"Older adults do not seem to be as generally averse to taking risks as that literature on financial risk-taking suggests," says Dr. Hanoch. "Instead, when it comes to the essential domain of health or medical decision making, older adults also focus strongly on the benefits of a given procedure." The findings have important implications for medical decisions by the elderly, Hanoch adds. When giving such patients medical and health information, "then, of course the potential risks need to be communicated to older patients, but also the potential benefits."
The authors gave the participants four different scenarios to read. In the first two scenarios, participants were asked to imagine that their local area had been sealed off due to a highly contagious and deadly flu. They were then told that either they (Scenario 1) or their child (Scenario 2) had a 10% chance (10 of 100 people) of dying from the flu.
Next, they were informed that a vaccine had been developed and tested that would prevent them (Scenario 1) or their child (Scenario 2) from contracting the flu with absolute certainty. However, there was a 5% (5 of 100 people/children) risk of dying from the vaccine.
After reading the scenarios, participants indicated whether they would accept the vaccine for themselves (Scenario 1) or have the vaccine administered to their child (Scenario 2).
A similar design was followed after the participants were asked to imagine that either they (Scenario 3) or their child (Scenario 4) had been diagnosed with a deadly, slow-growing cancer.
The study also used a psychological measurement instrument, the Domain-Specific Risk-Taking ScaleMedical (DOSPERT-M) to gauge whether a participant would immediately go to the doctor's when something in their body ached or bothered them.
Results showed that if a participant expected greater benefits they would be more willing to take a risk. Conversely, if they perceived higher risks, they would be less likely to take the risk. "Our data revealed no age-related differences in medical risk-taking tendencies," the authors conclude. "This result stands in contrast to the prevailing notion that older adults are more risk averse than younger ones."
Participants were more likely to accept medication (vaccine or chemotherapy) for their child than for themselves. Also, increasing age was associated with a higher likelihood of passive risk taking, whereby older adults avoided options, such as accepting a treatment or vaccine that could lower their chance of dying.
"Taken together, our study provides important insights about changes in medical risk taking across adulthood when people face an increasing number of complex and risky medical decisions," according to the authors.