Loneliness as epidemic

By Wendy S. Salkin

Just a few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article confirming that, indeed, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness. There is “mounting evidence” that links loneliness to illness, as well as “functional and cognitive decline.” What’s more, loneliness turns out to be a better predictor of early death than obesity.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who has spent much of his career working on loneliness, defines “loneliness” as “perceived social isolation.” Similarly, Masi, et al. (following Russell, et al. 1980) define “loneliness” as “the discrepancy between a person’s desired and actual social relationships.” As Masi, et al., point out, there is a distinction to be made between loneliness, on the one hand, and social isolation, on the other, although the two phenomena may indeed often go together. Whereas social isolation “reflects an objective measure of social interactions and relationships,” loneliness “reflects perceived social isolation or outcast.” Following Peplau & Perlman 1982 and Wheeler, et al. 1983, they go on to point out that “loneliness is more closely associated with the quality than the number of relationships.” (It’s important and timely to note that the 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Bob Dylan, brought out one application of this conceptual distinction in his song, “Marchin’ to the City,” when he sang: “Loneliness got a mind of its own / The more people around the more you feel alone.”)

The health risks posed by loneliness are several and can be severe. Loneliness can contribute to increased risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. In a 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis in Heart, Valtorta, et al., reported that “poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in risk of incident CHD [coronary heart disease] and a 32% increase in risk of stroke.” And in a March 2015 meta-analysis in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Holt-Lunstad, et al., reported that a substantial body of evidence supports the following two claims:

  1. Loneliness puts one at greater risk for premature mortality. In particular, “the increased likelihood of death was 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation, and 32% for living alone.”
  2. The heightened risk for mortality due to “a lack of social relationships” (whether reported loneliness, social isolation, or living alone) is greater than the risk due to obesity.

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CMS Prohibits Arbitration Clauses in Long-Term Care Facility Contracts

By Wendy S. Salkin

On Wednesday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS)—an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—released a final rule that “will revise the requirements that Long-Term Care facilities [LTCs] must meet to participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs” (1). (Almost all LTCs receive funds from Medicare or Medicaid.) This is the first time that these requirements have been “comprehensively reviewed and updated since 1991” (6)—that is, in the past 25 years. One of the most striking changes to the regulation is found in §483.65, where CMS “require[es] that facilities must not enter into an agreement for binding arbitration with a resident or their representative until after a dispute arises between the parties” (12) which means that CMS is “prohibiting the use of pre-dispute binding arbitration agreements” (12). Among the reasons provided by CMS for this change is a recognition of the notable power differential between LTCs and their residents:

There is a significant differential in bargaining power between LTC facility residents and LTC facilities. LTC agreements are often made when the would-be resident is physically and possibly mentally impaired, and is encountering such a facility for the first time. In many cases, geographic and financial restrictions severely limit the choices available to a LTC resident and his/her family. LTC facilities are also, in many cases, the resident’s residence. These facilities not only provide skilled nursing care, but also everything else a resident needs. Many of these residents may reside there for a prolonged period of time, some for the rest of their lives. Because of the wide array of services provided and the length of time the resident and his/her family may have interactions with the LTC facility, disputes over medical treatment, personal safety, treatment of residents, and quality of services provided are likely to occur. Given the unique circumstances of LTC facilities, we have concluded that it is unconscionable for LTC facilities to demand, as a condition of admission, that residents or their representatives sign a pre-dispute agreement for binding arbitration that covers any type of disputes between the parties for the duration of the resident’s entire stay, which could be for many years. (402-403)

As The New York Times reported, when the rule was first proposed in July 2015, it was “aimed at improving disclosure.” But, this final version of the rule “went a step further than the draft, cutting off funding to facilities that require arbitration clauses as a condition of admission.”

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REGISTER NOW! Aligning Policy and People: Why the Time is Right to Transform Advanced Care

hands_Ingram Publishing_slideJune 21, 2016, 9am – 1pm

Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East (2036), Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

This event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Register now!

Description

Please join us for the inaugural event of the Project on Advanced Care and Health Policy, a collaboration between the Coalition for Advanced Care (C-TAC) and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. This conference will feature policymakers, thought leaders, family caregivers, clinicians, consumer advocates, and others working to identify the timely, practical, and actionable opportunities to transform care for people with advanced illness nearing end-of-life.

Confirmed Speakers

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REGISTER NOW: Aligning Policy and People: Why the Time is Right to Transform Advanced Care

hands_Ingram Publishing_slideJune 21, 2016, 9am – 1pm

Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East (2036), Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

This event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Register now!

Description

Please join us for the inaugural event of the Project on Advanced Care and Health Policy, a collaboration between the Coalition for Advanced Care (C-TAC) and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. This conference will feature policymakers, thought leaders, family caregivers, clinicians, consumer advocates, and others working to identify the timely, practical, and actionable opportunities to transform care for people with advanced illness nearing end-of-life.

Confirmed Speakers

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Is It Immoral for Me to Dictate an Accelerated Death for My Future Demented Self?

by Norman L. Cantor

I am obsessed with avoiding severe dementia. As a person who has always valued intellectual function, the prospect of lingering in a dysfunctional cognitive state is distasteful — an intolerable indignity. For me, such mental debilitation soils the remembrances to be left with my survivors and undermines the life narrative as a vibrant, thinking, and articulate figure that I assiduously cultivated. (Burdening others is also a distasteful prospect, but it is the vision of intolerable indignity that drives my planning of how to respond to a diagnosis of progressive dementia such as Alzheimers).

My initial plan was to engineer my own demise while still competent to do so. My sketch of methodologies and my preferred course (stopping eating and drinking) appear at: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/billofhealth/2015/04/16/my-plan-to-avoid-the-ravages-of-extreme-dementia/. The obvious hazard in that plan is cutting short a still vibrant and satisfactory existence.

An alternative strategy would be to allow myself to decline into incompetency, but beforehand to dictate, in an advance directive, rejection of future life-sustaining medical interventions. This strategy would probably work as applied to serious maladies such as kidney disease, lethal cancer, or congestive heart failure. The disturbing issue then becomes timing. The onset of such serious maladies is fortuitous and years of lingering in dementia might precede my demise.

A further alternative would be to seek to accelerate my post-competence demise by declining not only major medical interventions such as mechanical respirators or dialysis, but also more simplistic items like antibiotics, antiarrhythmics, and artificial nutrition and hydration. My envisioned scenario is that infection would occur early (via urinary tract, skin, or pneumonia) and that this condition, left untreated, would precipitate my death. (My advance instructions would allow palliative but not curative measures.)

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Bioethicist Art Caplan: Why a New Alzheimer’s Drug Isn’t A No-Brainer

A new piece by contributor Art Caplan on NBC News:

Biogen, a Cambridge, Massachusetts biotech company, announced last week that early tests of their new drug aducanumab, a monoclonal antibody, had shown impressive results in treating those with early stage Alzheimer’s disease. The drug significantly reduced the amyloid plaque buildup in the brain that is associated with Alzheimer’s.

In a very early stage safety test aducanumab slowed the cognitive decline and dementia associated with Alzheimer’s in people. On the Mini Mental Status Exam, a widely used measure of cognitive function, people at risk of Alzheimer’s who got a placebo lost around 3 points over a year. But those who got the lowest dose of aducanumab worsened by just two points and those who got a higher dose lost less than a point.

Biogen was so excited by the early results in 166 volunteers that it is going to try to go directly to a much bigger clinical trial of the drug. Wall Street was very excited too—Biogen’s stock price shot up 10 percent. […]

See the full article here.

AALS Call for Papers on the Unbefriended Elderly

Call for Papers, AALS Joint Program
Section on Aging and the Law  ●  Section on Law, Medicine, and Health Care
2015 AALS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
January 3, 2015 from 3:30 to 5:15 p.m.
Unbefriended Elderly: 
Making Medical Treatment Decisions for Patients without Surrogates

The AALS Section on Aging and the Law and the AALS Section on Law, Medicine, and Health Care are sponsoring a joint program at the January 2015 Annual Meeting.  The program will consider many of the issues faced by elders, doctors, and the health care and social services systems when making medical treatment decisions for those incapacitated patients and residents who have no reasonably available legally authorized decision maker.

There are three confirmed panelists for this program:

(1)  Ellen Fox, MD, former Chief Officer for Ethics in Health Care, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

(2) Professor Lawrence A. Frolik, University of Pittsburgh School of Law

(3) Erica Wood, JD, Assistant Director, ABA Commission on Law and Aging

Two additional panelists will be selected through this call for papers.  Either paper proposals or completed papers are acceptable for submission.  Selected panelists may receive an offer for publication from the Journal of International Aging, Law & Policy, a joint publication of Stetson University College of Law and AARP.  The Journal is interested in papers that have an international or comparative component.  Acceptance of a publication offer is not a condition for serving as a panelist.  There is no formal requirement as to length of the proposal or final paper.  Preference will be given to papers that offer novel scholarly insights on the panel topic.  A paper may have already been accepted for publication as long as it will not be published prior to the Annual Meeting.

A successful proposal may focus on the broader legal, medical, or social aspects of making medical treatment decisions for patients without surrogates.  Also welcome are proposals that focus on ways to prevent patients from becoming unbefriended in the first place.  This could include analysis of: (a) broader default surrogate laws, (b) better advance care planning, or (c) more effective public guardianship procedures.  Narrative pieces concerning the administrative and regulatory issues presented will also be considered.

Paper proposals will be reviewed by a committee of law professors from both AALS sections.

Please submit your paper or proposal by Friday, August 31, 2014 at 5:00 p.m.  Please send it BOTH to Mark Bauer (Chair, AALS Section on Aging and the Law), Stetson University College of Law, mbauer at law.stetson.edu; and to Thaddeus Pope (Chair-Elect, Section on Law, Medicine, and Health Care), Hamline University School of Law, tpope01 at hamline.edu.

Biomarker Epistemology, Cognitive Decline, and Alzheimer’s Disease

By Matthew L Baum

This past Sunday, a group of researchers reported in the journal, Nature Medicine, a preliminary technique that uses variation in blood levels of 10 fats to predict the likelihood that elderly individuals would develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer’s Disease in the following 2-3 years. The sample size was small and the results may not generalize beyond the narrow age-range and demographics of the study group (i.e. the assay is far from ready for “prime time”), but the study is an important first step towards a lower cost (vs PET imaging) and less invasive (vs spinal tap) predictive biomarker of cognitive decline*. Its publication has also triggered a flurry of discussion on possible ethical ramifications of this sort of blood biomarker. I will not attempt to address these ethical issues specifically here. Rather, I seek to highlight that how ethically troubling one views the technology to be may depend partly on the sort of knowledge one thinks these biomarkers reveal (applied epistemology at its best).

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Capsule Endoscopy Instead of Colonoscopy? The FDA Approves the PillCam COLON

By Jonathan J. Darrow

In January, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the PillCam COLON 2 as a minimally-invasive means of viewing the colon, a development that is sure to be welcomed by U.S. patients who currently undergo an estimated 14 million colonoscopies each year.  While the approval represents a major step forward, the PillCam is unlikely to supplant current procedures just yet.

The colon has traditionally been examined via optical colonoscopy, a procedure perceived by many to be uncomfortable and embarrassing that involves insertion through the rectum of a 5-6 foot long flexible tube as part of an examination that can take 30 to 60 minutes. Air must be pumped in through the rectum in a process called “insufflation.” Sedatives and pain medication are generally used to help relieve discomfort. In contrast, the PillCam COLON contains a power source, light source, and two tiny cameras encapsulated in an easy-to-swallow pill that produces no pain or even sensation as it moves through the colon. Reflecting the absence of discomfort, one report from a clinical researcher noted that a few patients have insisted on X-rays to confirm that the device had passed in their stool (FDA Consumer). The pill takes about 30,000 pictures before passing naturally from the body, which usually occurs before the end of its 10-hour battery life.

The safety record of capsule endoscopy, the category to which the PillCam COLON belongs, so far appears to compare favorably with the alternatives. Capsule endoscopy may be less likely to produce accidental colonic perforations or other serious complications, which occur in less than 1% of traditional colonoscopies despite the best efforts of the treating physician. Tears of the colon wall can in turn “rapidly progress to peritonitis and sepsis, carrying significant morbidity and mortality.” (Adam J. Hanson et al., Laparoscopic Repair of Colonoscopic Perforations: Indications and Guidelines, 11 J. Gastrointest. Surg. 655, 655 (2007)). Splenic injury or other serious complications also occur rarely with optical colonoscopies. Unlike “virtual colonoscopy,” which uses computed tomography (CT) to peer into the body, capsule endoscopy does not involve bombarding the body with radiation. A leading study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported no serious adverse events among 320 subjects given the PillCam COLON, and concluded that use of the device was “a safe method of visualizing the colonic mucosa through colon fluids without the need for sedation or insufflation.” Read More

News from OMHA Appellants Forum: Statistical Sampling Coming, Backlog Growing

Yesterday the HHS Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) held a forum for appellants affected by its decision, which I blogged about last month, to hold off on assigning incoming appeals to ALJs while they work to clear a large backlog.  I was able to go, and enjoyed every minute.  This issue has received its share of attention in the news (Washington Post here, National Review online here), as well as controversy (see here and here), but I have not yet seen an article discussing some of the policy developments that came out of yesterday’s forum.  So I am going to play journalist for a minute, rather than academic, and share yesterday’s developments.  There were a lot of them: Read More