Does Anesthesia Cause Dementia in the Elderly?

by Barbara E. Friesner on September 1, 2010

A closer look at anesthesia given to the elderly

Several years ago, I wanted to write an article on the side affects of anesthetics in the elderly.  However, when I Googled “anesthesia side effects in elderly”, nothing came up.  Everyone I spoke to had a story to tell about the short- and long-term affects – especially the forgetfulness.  I knew it was a real issue but it seemed that no doctors or researchers were talking or writing about it.  This time when I googled it, just under 3 million entries came up.  (Interestingly enough, a high number but not a lot of information!).  But definitely progress!  But when I asked (both Google and doctors) how to get rid of the affects of the anesthesia faster, bupkiss!  So there’s still a long way to go!

Let me stress that I am not a physician and nothing in this article is a diagnosis or medical advice of any kind.  It is information based on research.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that, because of a number of factors, the elderly are at much greater risk from the use of anesthetics than younger patients.  In fact, according to the Merck Manuals Online Medical Library, “cognitive recovery among the elderly is the most commonly reported side effect as a result of surgical anesthesia”.   And to be fair, it’s not necessarily true that anesthesia is the reason for this condition.  Pre- and post-op prescribed pain meds and medication interaction – as well as overwhelming stress from being in the hospital and having surgery can also have an effect on cognition

That said, this dementia has finally been recognized as a shared experience among anyone who undergoes anesthesia during surgical procedures and has now been recognized as a syndrome known as postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD).

While POCD generally dissipates within a few weeks or more, a May 2005 American Journal of Hypertension article reported that, in significant numbers of elderly people who had undergone anesthesia during surgery, POCD conditions last 3 months or more.  Even worse, this study found that people who exhibited residual symptoms of POCD were more likely to die within one year after surgery. This was also the case for people who had a history of stroke, which is more common in the elderly than most other age groups.

What can you do to mitigate the affects of anesthesia?

1) Provide accurate medical history to the anesthesiologist. This is absolutely essential. This history must include:

~  any and all current medical conditions/diseases
~  any and all previous medical conditions/diseases
~  an up-to-date list of current medications
~  information about any reactions to current and former drugs
~  allergies of any kind

2)  What can you do after the surgery to move the recovery along?

~  Sleep the amount the doctor/nurse tells you to sleep and get up and move around the amount they tell you to move around.  Don’t push too fast but moving around will help your body start functioning again.

~  Drink plenty of fluids to flush the anesthesia out.  As uncomfortable as getting up to go to the bathroom or using a bedpan may be, the more liquids you drink, the better.

~  Allow time after the surgery for the anesthetic to wear off.  It is going to be slower in the elderly.  Talk to the doctor if you’re concerned but know that it is going to take time.  It could be weeks or even months.

Finally, don’t make any long-term plans or changes in your aging loved one’s life (such as moving them out of their home) until you’re sure that they have made as much recovery as they’re going to.

Want information about preparing for doctor’s appointment?  That’s what Saturday’s blog article – written by Sheryl Kurland (partner in Orlando Patient Advocates []) – is all about.

Want to make it really simple?  Then check out the ultimate eldercare instruction manual . . . The Ultimate Caregiver’s Success System!  It’s got check lists, work sheets, examples . . . everything you need to make it functional eldercare.


Holly January 14, 2011 at 3:22 pm

Thank you for this article. It’s really important for family members, caregivers, loved ones to be thinking about the side effects associated with anesthesia as it relates to their elderly loved ones ongoing health. I really enjoy your blog and newsletter. Keep up the good work!

Barbara E. Friesner January 18, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Thank you for stopping by and leaving such a kind comment, Holly! All the very best to you and yours for this New Year!


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