Seniors and Anesthesia


The older you are, the more likely it is for you to have surgery for a health condition such as clogged heart arteries or an arthritic knee. So it’s no surprise that more than one in 10 people who have surgery are 65 or older. Advanced age can affect the potential for surgery risks (although your medical condition and the type of surgery you are having play the major role). One concern is that the aging brain is more vulnerable to anesthesia, which prevents you from feeling pain during surgery. Two anesthesia-related surgery risks particularly in older people are:

  • Postoperative delirium – This temporary condition may not develop until a few days after surgery, when a patient may be confused, disoriented, have problems with memory and paying attention and is not aware of the surrounding environment. It is common, may come and go, and usually disappears after about a week.
  • Postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD) – This condition can be serious and lead to long-term memory loss and lessened ability to learn, concentrate and think. Because some of these problems are common in the elderly, the only way to determine if a patient actually suffers POCD is to conduct a mental test before surgery.

Thankfully, researchers have learned about these conditions and know how to prevent or reduce the effects and anesthesia is safer today than ever before.

To ensure anesthesia-related safety during surgery and decrease your risk of cognitive delirium or dysfunction, plan ahead.

  • Request that a physician anesthesiologist who specializes in geriatric patients lead your anesthesia care.
  • Ask your physician to conduct a pre-surgery cognitive test – an assessment of your mental function. The physician can then use that as a baseline for comparison after surgery.
  • Be sure your caregiver or person who spends the most time with you carefully observes your physical and mental activity after surgery. If anything troubling occurs, it should be reported to your physician. Talk to your physician before taking medications after surgery that can affect your nervous system, such as those for anxiety, seizures, muscle spasms and difficulty falling asleep.

During surgery the physician anesthesiologist will closely monitor your anesthesia-related care to prevent problems. But there are things that can help re-orient you after surgery and reduce confusion or disorientation:

  • Have a family member stay with you as you recover from surgery.
  • Bring your hearing aid or glasses and ask that they be made available as soon as possible after the procedure.
  • Request a recovery room with a window if possible, so you can tell whether it’s day or night.
  • Pack things to put in your room that will help you readjust, including a family photo, a clock and a calendar.

For more information on preparing for surgery, visit Preparing for Surgery.