As loyal blood donors age, industry is out for young blood
As thousands lined up to give blood in Orlando to help victims of the massacre at a gay nightclub, some are questioning the major restrictions that remain for gay men wanting to give blood themselves. (June 17)
When Corinne Standefer retires as a volunteer from the Lane Blood Center 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% of blood donations come from people over 40 — and nearly 45% come from people older than 50, according to the AABB, an international non-profit focused on transfusion medicine and cellular therapies.
The problem is 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 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.
The tactic has been successful: Kids in the youngest age groups — 16-18 and 19-22 — now account for about 20% 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% of blood donations come from people ages 23-29, with a little more than 12% from people in their 30s.
“Sometimes we see them come back when life kind of smacks them in their face in their 40s,” Forrestal said.
Even as donor demographics have changed, so has America’s thirst for blood. Overall, blood use has dropped by about a third in the past decade, largely because of improvements in surgical technique and a focus on blood conservation, AuBuchon said.
The 13.1 million units of whole blood and red blood cells transfused in 2013 represented a 4.4% decline compared with 2011, a recent analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed.
But the dip in donors has fallen faster. Latest figures aren’t out, but AuBuchon, a former AABB president, estimates that about 11 million units of blood were donated last year, down from more than 14.2 million collected in 2013. He estimates the number of donors has dropped from 6.8 million to about 6 million in that time.
Sporadic shortages often occur now in select areas of the country and at times of historically low donation — summer vacation, winter holidays, flu season. But those shortages could become worse if new donors aren’t found, AuBuchon said.
The key to motivating younger donors is innovation, said Forrestal, who oversees donor recruitment for New Jersey Blood Services, a division of the New York Blood Center.
“Facebook was hot four or five years ago. Now it’s much more Instagram and [the pitch has] got to be interesting and catchy,” she said.
Forrestal’s team lured Pokémon Go players to a blood center last summer. This year, they’ve partnered with Whole Foods markets to bring bloodmobiles to the grocery store parking lots.
There are times, however, when donors, including many young people, turn out in droves. Lines stretched for blocks after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Forrestal noted. The hard part is when interest subsides after a crisis.
“After 9/11, we had lines around the block at the donor center into the night,” she recalled. “Two thousand people said they intended to donate blood. Maybe 2% to 5% came back.”
The best hope for averting blood shortages may be donors like Courtney Stokes, 19, of Bellingham, Wash. She organized several drives as a high school student — and donated nearly a gallon of blood during that time.
She reassures friends her age who may be afraid of needles or worried the technician won’t be able to find a vein.
“I tell them each donation saves three lives,” she said, quoting blood experts.
But she has another trick up her sleeve: “Honestly, the one thing that I do is tell people there’s free food there,” Stokes said. “Cookies, Goldfish (snacks), apple juice. That usually does it.”
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 blood transfusion, or risk factors for the infections.
► Not have donated blood in the past 56 days.
Volunteers are deferred for:
► 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.
Kaiser Health News, a non-profit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.