Informed consent for research participation in frail older persons

Jeremy S. Barron, Patricia L. Duffey, Linda Jo Byrd, Robin Campbell, Luigi Ferrucci

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Informed consent has been the most scrutinized and controversial aspect of clinical research ethics. Institutional review boards (IRBs), government regulatory agencies, and the threat of litigation have all contributed to increasingly detailed consent documents that hope to ensure that subjects are not misled or coerced. Unfortunately, the growing regulatory burden on researchers has not succeeded in protecting subjects, but has rather made the consent process less effective and has discouraged research on vulnerable populations. As a matter of fact, investigators and ethicists continue to identify failures of the consenting process, particularly concerning participation in research of older individuals. The challenges involved in ensuring appropriate consent from the elderly include physical frailty, reduced autonomy and privacy, and impaired decision-making capacity due to dementia, delirium, or other neuropsychiatric illnesses. Ageism among investigators also contributes to failure of informed consent. The evaluation and continuing re-evaluation of an individual's decision-making capacity is critical but difficult. In the most extreme cases, the older adult's ability to participate in the consent process is clearly impaired. However, in many instances, the decision-making capacity is only partially impaired but declines during the course of a research project. Implementing methods of effective communication may enable many frail elderly individuals to make informed decisions. Special challenges are posed by research on end-of-life care, which typically involves frail, older subjects who are uniquely vulnerable, and research is conducted in institutional settings where subtle violations of autonomy are routine. Clearly, the frail elderly represent a vulnerable population that deserves special attention when developing and evaluating an informed consent process. Two important ethical conflicts should be kept in mind. First, although vulnerable older patients must be protected, protection should not prevent research on this important population. Similarly, because informed consent documents are often written to prevent legal jeopardy, these technical documents, expressed in language sometimes difficult to understand, can prevent comprehension of basic issues, defeating the ethical purpose of human protection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)79-85
Number of pages7
JournalAging Clinical and Experimental Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2004


  • Clinical trials
  • Ethics
  • Frail elderly
  • Informed consent

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aging
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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