Probing Medical Risk-Taking, Risk-Benefit Perception, and Age

Medical Risk-Taking

Aging often comes with increased medical needs and, consequently, increased medical risk. A group of researchers, unsatisfied with the current body of knowledge regarding risk-taking and age, wanted to see if older people were more cautious in regards to medical risks than younger adults. They found that, generally, there were few age-related differences in risk-taking behavior while in specific scenarios, although older age groups took on riskier choices.

According to the researchers, elderly people are known to be more cautious and less likely to make risky decisions. However, they point out that this information primarily comes from studies about financial decisions. In order to see whether this could be true for medical decisions, a set of tests were devised:

  • Participants were given a scenario where they were quarantined in a city with a contagious and deadly flu (10% death rate). Some were offered the option of taking a vaccine with a 5% death rate, and some were instead made to decide whether to give the vaccine to their child
  • The flu-quarantine scenario design was reused for an additional scenario, but this time the patient or child was diagnosed with a deadly, slow-growing cancer and the option was chemotherapy
  • An assessment using the Domain-Specific Risk-Taking Scale-Medical (DOSPERT-M), which is a way of gauging how likely someone is to go to the doctor when something is aching or bothering them

The results from the DOSPERT-M showed that there was no significant difference in risk-taking behavior among the different age groups, which shows a marked difference from the financial studies. The authors do note that past studies using DOSPERT-M have had mixed results, and suggests that their differences in findings was in part due to study design and the specific questions used.

In the scenarios, old age was associated with a lower rate of accepting either the vaccine or the chemotherapy for oneself, with the chemotherapy seeing the lowest acceptance rate. All age groups were actually less likely to accept the chemotherapy, but this association was strongest in the older participants. This finding is similar to one that another study found, but the pattern between the cancer and flu vaccine comparisons was different. The authors suggested this might be because their flu scenario specifically mentioned a quarantine and city-wide lockdown, which would prevent participants from considering a third option of leaving.

What This Means

The findings suggest that, where medical treatments are concerned, older people are more inclined towards medical risks if there is an altruistic or strongly beneficial result. In terms of general risk-taking behavior, there does not seem to be much difference between the young and old. Although the results in the larger body of knowledge is mixed, at minimum, these findings suggest there is an inherent hazard to using financial risk-taking findings to infer medical habits.

Hanoch, Y., “Does Medical Risk Perception and Risk Taking Change with Age?” Risk Analysis, 2016; 10.1111/risa.12692.
McSweeny, A., “Elderly will take medical risks given large enough benefits, study shows,” Plymouth University web site, September 27, 2016;, last accessed September 28, 2016.