Because of advances in public health and medicine, Americans are living longer. By the year 2020, nearly 54 million elderly (older than 65 years) persons (also known as "elders") will be living in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). However, compared to younger persons, elders are uniquely burdened with illnesses. On average, an elderly person has 3 to 4 illnesses and a 20% annual risk of hospitalization. Furthermore, elders are the largest consumers of prescription drugs and account for most deaths (Jahnigen, D., and Schrier, R., 1986; Swift, C., 1988; U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). As a result of these factors, clinicians will care for an increasing number of elderly persons with multiple medical problems, some of which are uniquely associated with aging itself (e.g., Alzheimer disease).
Medical care that improves the outcomes (e.g., mortality, morbidity, and quality of life) of elderly persons depends on research advances. This research, in turn, depends on the involvement of elderly patients in research studies. Research on health-related problems of elders is important not only because of demographic trends, but also because of a lack of previous research involving elders and poor understanding of the processes associated with aging itself and what constitutes normal aging (Zimmer et al., 1985; Kaye, J. et al., 1990; Sachs, G. and Cassel, C., 1990). Hence, research involving elders is needed. If one accepts the need for research involving elderly subjects, then the ethical aspects of human subjects research in general and research involving elders specifically should be considered (Denham, M., 1984). In this chapter, we discuss the history of human subjects research and the unique aspects and potential ethical challenges of conducting research involving elders. In addition, we provide suggestions for conducting research involving elders that yields ethically valid and fruitful results not only for the good of elders but also for society in general.
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