Anesthesia, surgery linked to decline in memory and thinking

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In adults over 70, exposure to general anesthesia and surgery is associated with a subtle decline in memory and thinking skills, according to new Mayo Clinic research. The study analyzed nearly 2,000 participants in the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging and found that exposure to anesthesia after age 70 was linked to long-term changes in brain function. The results appear in the British Journal of Anaesthesia.

Although the decline in brain function was small, it could be meaningful for individuals with already low cognitive function or pre-existing mild cognitive impairment who are considering surgery with general anesthesia, the researchers note. In older adults with borderline cognitive reserve that is not yet clinically obvious, exposure to anesthesia and surgery may unmask underlying problems with memory and thinking.

“We need to be sure that patients considering surgery, and their families, are properly informed that the risk of cognitive dysfunction is possible,” says Juraj Sprung, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist, who is the study’s senior author. “In addition, alternative strategies should be discussed with patients before surgery is undertaken for those deemed to be at high risk. This study provides further reasons for clinicians to start performing routine preoperative cognitive evaluations of the elderly to further clarify an individual’s risk of exposure to surgery and anesthesia. This initiative has been endorsed by the American Geriatrics Society but was not widely put into clinical practice.”

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