Q. My mother recently had surgery and now is experiencing significant memory loss. The doctor said that anesthesia sometimes affects memory. How long will this last and is there any thing we can do to help her recover?
A. Surgeons and anesthesiologists are aware that surgery may pose risks to mental function, especially in older people. They call this condition post-operative cognitive decline (POCD).
There is controversy as to whether the problem is brought on by anesthesia or by surgery itself. Some commonly used inhaled anesthetics have been linked to dementia in mouse research (Neurobiology of Aging, online March 7, 2007). Gases like isoflurane and halothane lead to accumulation of beta amyloid, a compound that is thought to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Injected anesthetics such as propofol and thiopental may be less likely to cause such problems (Neurochemical Research, Aug, 2005).
For many surgical patients, POCD disappears within a year. A small number, however, may have lasting memory problems. We don’t know of any way to reverse such cognitive decline.