A few years ago, the father of a friend, a man in his mid-80s, required surgery under general anesthetic. The procedure was a success, but the elderly man began to suffer periods of disorientation and eventually developed full-blown dementia. Eventually, he was sent to a nursing home and within two years, he died. Perhaps the man’s mental state was already slipping and the anesthesia had nothing to do with the onset of his illness. But questions are being raised among medical experts about the risk of putting the elderly into deep, surgical sleep.
Research on humans has been limited. A study out of the Oregon Health and Science University, compared the outcomes of 182 elderly who were subjected to more than one surgery under anesthesia to 345 people who had undergone no surgery. The results showed a remarkable difference between the two groups. Those who had undergone surgery while under anesthesia ‘‘displayed significantly worse cognitive difficulties over the course of seven years, on average, and showed brain shrinkage and ventricular enlargements—an expanding of brain cavities that is associated with dementia.” (Ibid pg. 65.)
Nonetheless, no definitive link has been established between anesthesia and dementia. (The Risk of Going Under,” by Andrea Anderson, Scientific American Mind, March/April 2017, pg. 63.) Mice studies show no effect in those subjected to anesthesia without surgery, nor in those who receive anti-inflammatory medication before a procedure.
Avoiding the knife may not be an option for some individuals. So,what can an elderly persons do to minimize risk? Writer Andrea Anderson suggests the following: First, talk with your doctor about your concerns. Second, be prescreened for subtle signs of impairment before having surgery. Third, ask if a lower dose of sedatives might be in order.