How long do transplanted organs last?
If you’re suffering from a failing organ, a transplant can restore your life. Transplant recipients grow up, go to school and graduate. They run marathons and run for office. They walk their daughters down the aisle and meet their first grandchildren. They eat meals they can finally enjoy.
“That’s the great thing about transplant—you can go back to leading a pretty normal life,” says Alejandro Diez, MD, a transplant nephrologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center specializing in kidney and pancreas transplantation. “My best days are when you see a patient before and after their transplant.”
And continued advancements in medicine and technology mean transplanted organs are lasting longer than ever—in many cases, several decades.
Just how long depends on the organ and hinges on a lot of factors, some of which patients can control. Here, we’ll break down how long certain transplanted organs may last and what patients can do to keep themselves healthy and extend the longevity of their transplants.
Transplant life by organ
As you look at these, a note where you see “graft half-life”: Many patients get discouraged because they misunderstand this concept, Diez says. It doesn’t mean that’s all the time the patient has—it means that if you take 100 patients transplanted today, half of those organs will last longer than the half-life and half will last less.
Doctors caution patients against getting hung up on averages. You can’t predict how long your transplanted organ will last; as evidenced by the 60-year-old kidney, it could be a very long time.
How long transplants last: living donors, 10 to 13-year graft half-life; deceased donors, 7-9 years.
Longest reported: 60 years.
Longest on record at Ohio State: Ohio State is following 32 patients who were transplanted over 30 years ago, including one living patient who received his transplant 44 years ago.
“And that was during a time when we couldn’t dream of the technology we have now nor the medications we have now,” Diez says. “Think of 1976—there was no such things as cellphones, let alone smart phones. Personal computers were still years away. John Travolta was making Saturday Night Fever. That’s what the world looked like.”
How long transplants last: when combined with a kidney transplant, about an 11-year graft half-life.
Longest on record at Ohio State: pancreas alone, 24 years; pancreas and kidney, 32 years.
How long transplants last: The majority of patients (75%) will live at least 5 years after a liver transplant.
Longest reported: more than 40 years.
Longest on record at Ohio State: 35 years.
How long transplants last: Median survival is greater than 12.5 years and has gotten better each decade.
Longest on record at Ohio State: 29 years, 5 months.
How long transplants last: Based on 2017 data, 7.8 years for a bilateral (both lungs) and 4.8 years for a single. That survival has gotten better each decade.
Longest on record at Ohio State: 14 years, 10 months.
Why don’t transplanted organs last a lifetime?
While transplanted organs can last the rest of your life, many don’t. Some of the reasons may be beyond your control: low-grade inflammation from the transplant could wear on the organ, or a persisting disease or condition could do to the new organ what it did to the previous one. If you’re young, odds are good you’ll outlive the transplanted organ.
Other factors that could affect the life of a transplanted organ include how long the organ was outside of a human body from the time the organ was procured from the donor and implanted into the recipient (longer is usually worse), whether the donor was living or deceased (living is better) and the health of the recipient. And some organs are simply more vulnerable than others—lungs are more prone to infection because they’re in constant contact with the outside world, says Bryan A. Whitson, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon and the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s lead lung transplant surgeon.
“At the end of the day, we’re fighting biology,” Diez says. “We do a good job but, a lot of time, biology wins.”
But you don’t have to give up when your organ does. Retransplantation—that is, another transplant following a previous one—is possible and depends on the condition of the patient and how long it’s been since their last transplant. Retransplants are much more common with kidneys (about 25% of transplants nationwide) than organs such as the heart or lungs (about 2 to 5%).
Ways to extend the life of a transplanted organ
While some factors are outside of a patient’s control, you shouldn’t leave the fate of your transplant to chance. Doctors say patient behavior is critical to the success or failure of a transplant. Here’s what you can do:
- Keep up with your treatment.
No matter the organ, the key to transplant success is what a patient does in the weeks, months and years that follow. That means taking your medications and keeping every appointment, no matter how good you and your restored body are feeling. The first few years are especially critical.
“The big thing is you have to maintain compliance with all follow-up appointments and labs,” says Anthony Michaels, MD, the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s director of liver transplantation. “It can be strenuous in the beginning, but once you get further out it’s easier to do.”
- Stay on top of diet and exercise.
Patients who were disinterested in food or unable to eat may find renewed enthusiasm after a transplant. It can be hard to maintain a healthy diet.
“After a successful transplant, all of a sudden your sense of taste comes back. Your appetite comes back. Most of the dietary restrictions are lifted,” Diez says. “It’s like a kid on Christmas Day. You can put on a lot of weight—and then that can lead to other complications, like high blood pressure or diabetes.”
Eating healthy foods in moderation and exercising as approved by your doctor will keep you and your new organ functioning better.
- Monitor your overall health.
You still have the rest of your body to worry about, so continue to see your primary care physician for regular cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes monitoring as well as other health maintenance. Don’t forget yearly skin exams and cancer screening too. There may be a time when your transplant isn’t your primary health concern.
“The No. 1 cause of mortality after a liver transplant in the long-term isn’t their liver failing again,” Michaels says. “It’s cardiovascular.”
- Don’t fall into bad habits.
Especially if those habits, such as smoking, drinking, poor diet or lack or exercise, led to organ failure in the first place, now’s the time to embrace your second chance and start making changes.