Blood Donors Aging Away

At Crestview Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Jerry Leupen sits down to donate blood. He's a cheerful guy who's eager to talk about public radio while rolling up his sleeve. He jokes and chats with Christy Schoonover, the phlebotomist, as she sticks a needle in his arm. At 72, donating isn't a big deal for him. He's been giving blood faithfully for years.

"You know, there's so many of us that have been blessed by good health and, maybe, lucky at jobs or whatever," he says. "It seems to me that {we} who have so much should be giving blood whether we ever use it or not. I mean, it kind of makes sense to me."

A lot of people from Leupen's generation feel that way.

"This incredible World War II and boomer generation, that just donated like crazy, is slowly but surely aging out of the donor population." - Louis Katz, M.D.

Dr. Louis Katz is chief medical officer of America's Blood Centers, of which Hoxworth and Community Blood Center are members. He says people grew up giving out of strong civic duty.

"The World War II generation and baby boomers were all about that intense community service and would come in and let us stick needles in their arms and think that was a good idea," says Katz.

In fact, baby boomers are the largest population of blood donors in the country. But they're slowly aging out of the donor population. There's no age-limit for donating, but you can't give if you have health problems.

High school students aged 16 to 19 make up the next largest group of donors.

Danny Lutz is a junior at Elder High School on Cincinnati's west side. He's just finished donating at his school's bi-annual blood drive. He has gauze wrapped around his arm, just below the elbow.

He says he donated "just because I knew it was a good cause and I know a couple of people who need blood all the time. My brother's friend needs blood a lot and I know a kid who needs blood who goes to Elder High School."

"We really, over the past decade or so, have really developed a strong reliance on high school donors," says Katz. "And they're great donors, but then they go off to college and they're hard to find."

And there's the problem: Generations X, Y, and Millennials aren't giving blood in high enough numbers to make up for those baby boomers who are falling out of the donor pool. It's the 18 to 40 year old age group that donation agencies are trying to reach. Katz understands why these generations have such a hard time finding time to donate. He says they're busier than their parents were. They have kids, and two working parents, dance classes, soccer practices, meetings…

"The pace of life is faster," he says. "Everybody has to have a job. It's harder to get free." Katz isn't discouraged though. "We're working and I think we'll succeed… we'll have enough blood… I'm pretty sure."

Katz says it's about adjusting the business model. Places like Hoxworth Blood Center in Cincinnati and Community Blood Center in Dayton have to change the way they reach potential donors.

"What happens if I dial your landline at home?," he asks. "You're not going to answer it 10 percent of the time. So we need to get ahold of you by text. We need to get ahold of you by email. We need to get ahold of you on your cell phone. And all of those things are operational issues that are slow to evolve."

In the meantime, hospitals are changing the way they use blood.

Katz says blood transfusions are down 20 percent and he expects that to continue decreasing. Patient blood management strategies question if transfusions are always necessary. Studies are showing patient outcomes aren't being negatively affected by fewer transfusions. However, medical professionals say more research on blood conservation strategies is needed.

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