As loyal donors age, industry is out for young blood

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By JoNel Aleccia 
Kaiser Health News 

When Corinne Standefer retires as a volunteer from the Lane Bloodworks in Eugene, Ore., this month, she will have donated 37 years of her life — and almost 19 gallons of blood. 

The 89-year-old gave her first pint decades ago to help a friend who had cancer. 

“When they called me and said ‘Could you donate again?’ I just started coming in,” she recalled. 

So, every eight or nine weeks, as often as it’s allowed, Standefer would roll up a sleeve and become one of the prized older donors who contribute the bulk of the U.S. blood supply. Overall, nearly 60 percent of blood donations come from people over 40 — and nearly 45 percent come from people older than 50, according to the AABB, an international nonprofit focused on transfusion medicine and cellular therapies. 

There’s a problem with that, though. Like Standefer, many regulars are aging out of the donor pool. Increasingly, blood industry experts say, there are too few young people lining up to replace them. 

“The older generations seemed to have internalized the message that we always have to have an adequate supply of blood on the shelves,” said Dr. James AuBuchon, president and chief executive of Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle. “The younger generations just seem less wired toward that message.” 

For people who grew up during World War II — and their children, the baby boomers — blood donation was a civic duty that became a lifelong habit. 

“It was a cultural thing to donate,” said Marie Forrestal, president of the Association of Donor Recruitment Professionals, or ADRP, a division of America’s Blood Centers. 

That cultural norm has changed, though, and for nearly a decade, blood banks have focused on recruiting teens and young adults, often through high school and college blood drives. 

“We’re trying to capture the people who are 16 and older,” Forrestal said. 

The tactic has been successful: Kids in the youngest age groups — 16-18 and 19-22 — now account for about 20 percent of all donations. 

But that’s not enough to compensate for lower turnout among people in their late 20s and 30s who can be harder to reach, more mobile and less inclined to donate than other generations. Fewer than 10 percent of blood donations come from people ages 23-29, with a little more than 12 percent from people in their 30s. 

Blood Donation Basics 

Volunteers donated more than 14.2 million units of blood in 2013, according to the latest available figures. More than 13.1 million units were used for transfusions that year. 

To give blood, volunteers must:

  • Be healthy, with a normal pulse and blood pressure, and a normal temperature. 
  • Meet minimum age requirements in your state, typically 16 years old. 
  • Weigh at least 110 pounds. 
  • Be free of infections that can be transmitted through transfusion, or risk factors for the infections. 
  • Not have donated in the past 56 days.  

Volunteers are deferred from giving blood for several reasons, including:

  • Not feeling well on the day of donation. 
  • Past use of needles to take drugs not prescribed by a medical professional. 
  • Being a man who’s had sex with another man in the past 12 months – or a woman who’s had sex with such a man in the past 12 months. 
  • Getting tattooed in the past 12 months, unless it was done under sterile conditions at a state-licensed facility. 
  • Having certain medical conditions or receiving certain medical treatments or medications. 
  • Living or traveling in certain areas of the world for designated periods of time. 

To read more on the need for donation, pls go to KHN.org. KHN’s coverage of end-of-life and serious illness issues is supported by The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and its coverage related to aging & improving care of older adults is supported by The John A. Hartford Foundation. 

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