This Well blog post is about a study that looked at the medical records from 647 kidney transplants, analyzed by the age of donors to try to determine if age made the transplants less successful. Results showed that the five-year survival rate for recipients was not changed much by the age of the donor, however, donors over 80 years of age had kidneys that could not be used–and had to be discarded–almost half the time.
The post is a quick summary, and left out important details: What are the risks of using kidneys from older donors? What are the rules regarding the age of donors in the U.S.? We also found the headline (“Never too old to be a organ donor”) and some of the story framing off the mark by overgeneralizing the findings.
Kidney failure and the shortage of donors is staggering. The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network estimates about 100,000 people are waiting for a kidney in the United States this year. Donors can be recently deceased or living. This story raises hopes by suggesting older deceased donors may not need to be excluded on the basis of age. Many people will want to know how these findings will impact kidney availability in the U.S., if at all. The New York Times’s blog post left out that important information.
The story doesn’t discuss costs. Couldn’t the transplant surgery be more expensive for older donors due to increased rate of complications? And just in general, cost is almost always an issue with surgery, and this needed at least a brief mention.
The story quantifies benefits here:
In an average follow-up of five years, they found that the rate of unusable donor kidneys and the long-term outcomes of recipients varied little among the first three age groups — around 18 percent of the organs had to be discarded, and the five-year survival was about 88 percent. With donors over 80, survival outcomes were similar, but the discard rate increased sharply to 48 percent.
However, the story appears to make a jump in correlation about the benefits that isn’t supported by its own facts.
At the beginning the story makes this claim: “A new study has found a kidney transplanted from a deceased 79-year-old can be as effective as one from a person 30 years younger.” But the researchers never compared a 79-year-old kidney to a 49-year-old kidney in similar recipients — which is what many readers may assume the story is talking about. The story later says the researchers only transplanted kidneys at most seven years older than the recipient.
Kidney transplants vary in success rates according to many factors. There is no mention of harms that might come to a patient from receiving a kidney from a much older deceased donor. Or the harms that an older donor might face compared with a younger donor.
This very brief blog post does not give us enough information to evaluate the quality of evidence.
There is no disease mongering.
The post included no independent sources.
There is a complicated measuring of risk and benefit for patients facing kidney transplants. Transplants are usually better than dialysis for patients, but transplants carry their own risks of infection, just to give one example. This post did not include any context about the risk equation and how it might be changed if more organs from older donors were available.
Given that this study ran in a U.S. publication, we wanted to know what the guiding rules are on age of donors, in case they differ from what is standard in Italy. If older donors can donate in the U.S. already, then this study isn’t very newsworthy, for example.
We found other research on the same topic, so it’s not clear to us what’s new about this latest study.
The post does not appear to rely solely on the news release (because it has unique quotes), but it didn’t provide anything beyond what the news release stated.