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Can Anesthesia Cause or Worsen Dementia?

There are many things to consider when a senior needs surgery, and one of those things is the effects of anesthesia on elderly patients. Many people wonder if you can get dementia from anesthesia. While the short, simple answer is no, anesthesia cannot cause dementia, it can have other effects that mimic dementia symptoms and this should be taken into consideration when planning surgery.

Anesthesia in the Elderly

One of the challenges when using anesthesia for the elderly is that it takes longer for anesthesia to leave the patient’s system. As a result, some of the side effects can last longer than they might in a younger patient. These side effects can mimic the symptoms of dementia and can last for a few hours, days or even months after surgery.

Does Anesthesia Cause Dementia?

Studies have shown that anesthesia does not cause dementia, but rather a condition called postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD) which can look and feel similar to dementia. The patient may experience confusion, disorientation, sudden mood swings, and other dementia-like symptoms. It is important to note that POCD happens suddenly, and can last for days, weeks, or even months after surgery. Conversely, dementia is a steady decline that happens over many months.

There are ways to mitigate the effects of anesthesia on older patients. Speak to the anesthesiologist before surgery and be sure to let them know if you had trouble in the past or are prone to anesthesia fog after surgery. Let them know about any pre-existing conditions and medications you are taking, including if you have ever experienced depression. They may be able to use a different type of anesthesia that will lessen the possibility of side effects.

How Does Anesthesia Affect Alzheimer’s Patients?

Some studies have found that certain types of general anesthetics seem to lead to increased levels of the Alzheimer’s hallmark toxic clumps of amyloid and tau proteins in brain cells. These proteins are thought to cause damage to brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease. But it is worth noting that while there is a correlation between the elderly undergoing surgery with general anesthesia and an increased risk of dementia, there is no concrete proof of causation.

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Is Anesthesia Safe for the Elderly?

What does all this mean for you or your elderly loved one? Surgery always comes with risks at any age. Concerns about dementia or other cognitive challenges should not prevent you from having necessary surgery. As always, you should speak to your doctor and anesthesiologist to discuss concerns, risks, and mitigation and trust them to help you make the best decision for your situation.

Ultimately, rather than worrying about the questionable connection between anesthesia and dementia, you should focus on what research has indisputably shown to be beneficial to brain health: a healthy Mediterranean diet (lots of greens, whole grains, and proteins like fish and nuts), exercise, heart health, and keeping your brain active with things like memory games.

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