Summary: After surgery, many people experience short-term delirium and/or longer-term cognitive decline. Scientists are still studying how to prevent these problems.
Doctors, families and patients report that surgery seems to cause short-term delirium and/or longer term memory loss in some people.
In a recent Duke University study of 1064 patients undergoing major surgery (but not heart surgery), neuropsychological tests showed the following rates of post-operative cognitive dysfunction or POCD:
Age range Leaving hospital 3 Months After Surgery
18-39 year olds 37% 6%
40-59 year olds 30% 6%
60 or older 41% 13%
Even higher rates of POCD have been reported after heart surgery, but scientists still don't agree on how to measure these problems, or on whether the heart patients also had memory loss before their surgeries.
Dr. Zhongcong Xie, Assistant Professor at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, is working with his colleagues to determine what causes POCD.
POCD seems to be worse among the elderly, but "the reason why age is a risk factor for POCD remains to be determined," Dr. Xie says. In his lab, he and his colleagues are researching
possible additional risk factors, including:
So, if you need surgery, are there any steps you can take to lower your risk of delirium or POCD? Unfortunately, until there are more human studies, we just don't know. "The findings in all of the studies in this area are important," says Dr. Xie. "But I would advise caution in extrapolating these findings in test tubes and in animals to humans. Much more research needs to be done before we can come to any conclusions."