My 86-year old father just had back surgery. With the high cost of health care today, shouldn't old age keep people from having surgery?

That's a very practical way to look at things. Countries with national health insurance do withhold care of this kind for patients over a certain age. Even in the United States, some treatment isn’t always advised based on age.

For example treatment for some kinds of leukemia in an adult over age 70 doesn't increase life expectancy. Therefore it isn't recommended for most patients in that age group. But when it comes to orthopedic surgery, advanced age isn't always a problem. In fact, the rates of surgery have almost doubled in the last 20 years.

Poor health or other medical problems are more likely to increase a patient's risk of problems after an operation. Heart disease, diabetes, and obesity are the top problems to consider. Since an 86-year old in good health could live another five to 10 years or more, surgery isn't withheld on the basis of age.