Seniors at Risk for Cognitive Impairment After Surgery


I wish someone had warned me and my family that my father would be very disoriented after bypass surgery. To see a loved one in an intensive care unit post-surgery is scary enough without their obvious signs of confusion and fear. We had been told by kind friends that the aftermath of heart surgery in the ICU was very disturbing, much like a horror movie science experiment. But the cognitive impairment that older adults often experience after anesthesia is particularly frightening, especially if the patient had no impairment prior to surgery.

There has been much research on the effects of anesthesia on brain function and memory post-surgery and as we age, the body takes much longer to be rid the drugs out of the system.

A recent article on reports that there is even more interest now in the area of study because more seniors are having more surgical procedures at an older age than ever before. This, of course, increases the incidence of cognitive impairment. Although critical procedures to address this issue have been adopted both pre- and post-surgery, there are very high-risk categories of older adults that may be seriously affected.

A Dutch anesthesiologist has surveyed the existing literature on these high-risk patients and listed those of most concern. The doctor also concluded that as many as 13% of those over 60 will have cognitive impairment for up to three months after surgery.

  • Patients over 60 with pre-existing cerebral, heart or vascular disease
  • Those patients with a history of alcohol abuse

If you or a senior loved one is due for surgery, be sure to discuss your questions and concerns about cognitive impairment with your family doctor, the surgeon, and anesthesiologist with whom you’ll be working. Ask what procedures will be used before and after surgery to lessen the chances of it occurring.

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