Everyone dies. Dying today typically involves a period of protracted illness, disability, and intense involvement of medical professionals. Although the experience is woefully understudied, a significant body of evidence is emerging to guide clinicians, health systems, and society toward better practices for people facing serious, life-threatening conditions.
That evidence has shown, importantly, that the amount of suffering that people endure in their last year of life is considerable. Singer et al1 recently reported on the experience of 7204 adults older than 50 years who died while being followed up as part of a longitudinal study of US health and retirement. The researchers found that, during their last year, 51% of study participants were often troubled by moderate to severe pain, and 46% to 53% also experienced at least a month of depression, periodic confusion, dyspnea, and incontinence during that time.1 Furthermore, among those who died between 1998 and 2010, none of these symptoms decreased in occurrence during their last year of life, but rather occurrence of pain, depression, and periodic confusion actually increased. Medical care for the symptoms people experience at the end of life does not seem to have gotten better; it may have gotten worse.