You're Never Too Old To Be An Organ Donor
Experts explain the real considerations related to organ donor eligibility
Jacquelyn Eberle was 57 and renewing her driver’s license when she did something she'd never done before: she signed up to become an organ donor upon her death.
The West Allis, Wis., resident was motivated to take that step after seeing a magnet that read, “Don’t Take Your Organs to Heaven. Heaven Knows We Need Them Here.” That message caused her to think of someone she had known who had died waiting for a kidney transplant.
“She was on dialysis all the time,” says Eberle, now 61. “I wanted to [register as a donor] in her memory.”
Despite what many people assume, there’s no age limit for donating your organs, tissues (bones, skin, tendons) or eyes upon death. What matters is how well the specific organ functions when you die, even if you have other health conditions.
One of the oldest organ donors in the U.S. was a 92-year-old Texas man who died of a brain hemorrhage and donated his liver to a 69-year-old woman with end-stage liver disease.
Donor Opportunities Have Expanded
“As transplant medicine has improved over the years, we have been able to transplant more people with organs from older donors,” says Lisa Stocks, executive director of Lifesharing, a federally-designated organ procurement organization (OPO) that coordinates donations in San Diego and Imperial County in California.
One cause for the organ shortage is that older adults sign up to donate at lower rates than younger people do.
One donor can provide organs to eight people and help dozens through tissue donation. Although more people are now considered suitable donors than years ago, there’s a huge shortage of available organs. The national transplant waitlist has 113,539 patients on it as of July 5, 2019. Every day, 20 people die waiting, and more people are added to the list.
One cause for the organ shortage is that older adults sign up to donate at lower rates than younger people do. In 2018, only about 33% of organ donors were older than 50 although 62% of transplants went to such patients.
“We encourage everyone to register as a donor, regardless of age,” Stocks says.
Misconceptions About Organ Donor Eligibility
Many people who don’t sign up to be an organ donor simply don’t know they are eligible. They believe their age and health conditions disqualify them.
“We absolutely will use donors in higher-age groups. It’s been shown [by research] to be safe,” says Dr. David Odell, a thoracic surgeon on the lung transplant team at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Choosing to use a donor organ is “much more about the quality of the organ than it is chronological age,” Odell says.
People with diabetes or high blood pressure frequently rule themselves out as donors. “They often say, ‘You wouldn’t want something from me,’” says Richard Hasz, vice president of clinical services for the Gift of Life Donor Program, an OPO serving eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware.
In fact, even if a health condition makes a particular organ unsuitable for transplant, the prospective donor may have unaffected organs and tissues that can be used.
A person with HIV can donate an organ to someone with HIV. Donors with Hepatitis C are eligible as donors, even to those without the virus, because there are effective treatments.
However, people with active cancer cannot donate because transplanted cancer cells could grow in transplant recipients. Many cancer survivors are able to be organ donors, but it varies by cancer type and the person’s condition.
When you sign up to be a donor through a driver’s license form or state registry, you are indicating that you want to donate after death. Deceased donors provide “by far the lion’s share of organs donated,” says Alice Andors, senior director of communications for the American Kidney Fund. Kidneys and some other organs also can be transplanted from living donors.
If a deceased person is being considered as a donor, a transplant team carefully evaluates that individual’s medical history and other factors, as well as organ health.
“All organs, regardless of the age of the donor, are independently evaluated,” Odell says. For example, the most common reasons for not using donated lungs are not chronic conditions, he notes, but infection or acute damage from trauma, such as in a car accident. But, adds Odell, “the odds are that the liver, kidneys and some abdominal organs are going to be OK.”
Myths persist. Some people think doctors won’t try to save their lives if they are registered donors, which is not true. Organ donation isn’t considered until there are no lifesaving options left. The donor’s body is treated with respect and an open-casket funeral, if wanted, is possible.
Why Registering for Organ Donation Matters
Transplantation is now a proven and highly successful treatment for end-stage organ failure. Many of us know someone who has benefited from a transplant.
Still, it may be surprising to learn that only about 1% of people will qualify at death to have their organs used for transplantation. “You have to die in a fairly specific way,” says Hasz. “You have to be in an ICU, have a devastating brain injury, be on a ventilator and you’ve been declared brain dead.”
When that happens, an OPO transplant coordinator talks with the patient’s loved ones about the process for authorizing organ donation. According to Hasz, families of older patients are less likely to allow donation of the deceased person’s organs than families of younger patients are.
That’s why, if you want to be an organ donor, it’s important to sign up and tell your family about your wishes. People who put a donor designation on their driver’s license or state registry list “take an extreme amount of burden off the family,” says Hasz.
Registration details vary by state. In California, Stocks says, you can choose which organs and tissues you want to donate, but other states have different rules.
Reflecting on the decision she made four years ago, Eberle is comfortable with her choice. “I thought I might as well donate,” she says, “and leave a little part of me to help people live longer.”