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.

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  1. Anthony Smith
    Ontario
    Reply

    I’ve had 9-10 surgeries including both minor and major ones. The last one was an endoscopic surgery from Dr Kris Conrad at Richmond Hill. I’m sorry to say that even though I’ve had side effects, none of them were related to memory loss. I’ve not been a forgetful person nor am I a memorising one. But I have never felt any changes occurring to my internal hard disk.

  2. G
    Reply

    I had 4 surgeries within 4 months with the last one January 2014, and it’s very frustrating, my short term memory loss. I had brain surgery, gamma knife for tumor on brain stem and 2 eye surgeries for retina detachment.

  3. gregorykgolden
    Reply

    About 30 minutes

  4. Gaby
    Reply

    I am spitting mad about this. My experience 4 months out from hip replacement surgery is frighteningly similar to Kate’s. I’m a writer of fiction and all the juice is gone. While I was on hydrocodone post surgery for pain I seemed sharp, but subsequently I feel duller all the time. This was voluntary surgery, and I asked many questions about how it would affect me mentally and whether it would imperil my writing, receiving answers in the negative each time. They tell me it, and the companion depression, will be better after six months, but that I won’t be healed for a year. Then they want to do my knee. I’m thinking pain and a wheelchair would be an improvement over more mental loss. I have always had a large vocabulary, read very fast with excellent comprehension, so the changes are excruciating. I’d rather have pain in the hip.

  5. Deji
    Reply

    I had an exploratory laparotomy and appendectomy performed on me in June 2009. My wife had Ceaserian Sections in 2005, 2007 and 2010. In all these surgeries we were given Ketamine injection. We have both experienced some memory loss following these operations. In my own case, I had 2 apneic episodes during my surgery, and one of these exceeded 3 minutes. Several years after, I still struggle with learning or retaining new information.

  6. Trudy
    Reply

    Over the past 27 months I have had 6 ankle surgeries. I was given the drug before that makes you very relaxed, and then under general anesthesia for several hours. The first surgery was the shortest, about 2 hours, the other 5 were about 4 hours each. This last surgery was 4/2/2013 and I have been having a lot of problems with my memory and concentration.
    I know the nurse in the hospital said, “boy you sure must be sensitive to that pre op med they gave you”, I couldn’t stay awake or talk. They told me to order something to eat and didn’t even have me do a liquid diet. I really don’t remember much of my stay in the hospital from Tues-Friday. I also had a block so I couldn’t feel my foot for the first 2 days and then they took that out. I was on a lot of pain meds, to get a head of the pain before they removed the block.
    I haven’t taken any for quite awhile now and am still having the problem with concentration and remembering, I go to PT on Tuesday and the therapist asks what I did that weekend and I go, I can’t remember! It is a scary feeling.
    I had never heard of POCD until searching for memory loss after surgery today. Does anyone know what type of Dr to go to that can diagnose this? I have been on LTD from work and it is going to end and I do not feel mentally able to handle the work. Also I need to do 23 Continuing Ed hours for my life and health license and I haven’t been able to concentrate to do that. I have a hearing for disability on Oct 31, but they think since I can walk now I can do my job, but mentally I don’t feel I can handle it. Anyone have any feedback??

  7. rebecca
    Reply

    I am 39 and had surgery a couple of years ago (can’t remember how long) for endometriosis and had trouble with my memory ever since. I had an accident in my teens and had a brain haemorage so don’t know if this was related. I forget how to get to places I don’t go to on a regular basis (ie every day). I forget events that have passed and places I have been rather than things I have to remember for the future (excellent reminder function on my mobile phone). It is an embarrassing problem and I cover it up a lot. I have just got a camera and I am going to start a scrap book/diary as I think it will help.
    Got to go for another op next week and I am dreading it but I intend to speak to the anesthetist first! Ginko biliko is supposed to help the brain and vitamin C straight after op for a week or two, I read that today. I don’t think there is a cure.

  8. misty
    Reply

    My 84-yr-old mother is one-week postoperative for an aterioscopy of her left leg, which failed because of her reaction to either Versed or fentanyl. (I cannot tolerate Versed either.) Five days ago the surgeon repeated endoscopic treatment (balloon angioplasty) successfully under general anesthesia. Mother is still having memory issues and visual hallucinations. She is confused and angry, and I am scared.
    My major question is why the risk of POCD was not disclosed on any of the numerous consent forms I had to sign. I have a medical beckground and would not have overlooked the issue, even though the angioplasty was probably medically necessary to stave off more circulatory complications. Also I have had fibromyalgia diagnosed 25+ yrs ago and have “brain fog” myself leading to Social Security Disability.

  9. becky
    Reply

    I am 38 years old and had minor surgery for endometriosis 2 years ago under general anesthetic. When I woke the anesthetist was the only one in the room and stressed at me for having nail varnish on my toenails whilst in his theatre. I have since been told that they can check your oxygen levels by looking at your nails. Since then I have every bad memory problems. I get lost while driving and make mistakes at work. I had a brain injury when I was 14 following a riding accident, and thought it might be connected. Hope it doesn’t get any worse, it is very frightening.

  10. Allissa
    Reply

    I am 21 years old and I had knee surgery about six months ago. I had a patella graft acl replacement, which was suppose to be a quick surgery ended up being under for a few hours. My knee recovered at a remarkable rate. Could not have been more pleased with the surgery. I had some pretty wired memory issues in the few weeks after surgery, blamed it on the pain meds. However in the past few months I have forgotten the most bizarre things like how to get to a place that I have been to many times which scares me because I drive a lot for my job. Also anything that is out of my daily routine work/ home life I can’t remember, even if I planned it the day before. Good to read that this is an actual problem and not that I am loosing it.

  11. Kate
    Reply

    Jody,
    Please read my comment on this blog. Thanks for your feedback and I’m so scared also. Know that you are not alone. Kate

  12. Kate
    Reply

    October 22, 2012
    I recently (6 months ago) underwent cancer surgery and I did not wake up from the anesthesia until about 7 hours after they expected (I went under at 3 pm for an expected 1 1/2 hours) and woke up at 11:30 pm. They kept asking my husband if I had sleep apnea, or asthma, as I was having problems with my breathing during this time. They were extremely concerned and very relieved when I finally woke up. I’ve had fibromyalgia for over 15 years (back then they said it was in my head and if I could have put them in my body for a few hours, they would have more than realized the pain was real) and one of the side effects can be a foggy brain sometimes, but I was always able to remember all appointments and times without writing them down, even if they were months away.
    Since the surgery, I now often forget what I’m going into another room for. It’s like I walk through the doorway and all short term memory is left behind. With the long term memory, I find that things will pop into my head and then right out again. I was visiting my daughter in Whislter this weekend and my other daughter had asked me to get her a scarf at a certain store. As I walked through the village, I remember remembering this once or twice, but I never followed through and forgot to get it for her. I was devastated when I got home and she asked for something not only did I not get her, but remembered remembering without following through. It has been so difficult and frightening for me. It has helped to read this forum and there is some comfort that it is not in my head. I wonder how long some of you have dealt with it and if some of you feel it could be permanent. It would be so helpful. Thanks, Kate

  13. greg
    Reply

    I was under about 30 minutes.

  14. A. Lee
    Reply

    I had a major surgery just a year ago wherein I’m positive that my anesthesia dosage was significantly increased due to the change in surgeon and medical condition. I didn’t realized something had changed until months ago. It was then that I noticed that I tend to have some kind of memory gap at times and I’m becoming more disorganized.
    I dismissed it as an effect of stress and lack of interest in my work. However, just recently, my friend asked me if I’d ever experienced memory problem after surgery. It was then that I became curious. It was a huge relief after reading most of the comments here and finding out that I’m not the only one with this problem. I guess modern surgery still have side effects unlike what doctors tend to make us believe :(

  15. Jody A
    Reply

    It’s been one week since my surgery. I believe I was under for about 2 hours. I had trouble breathing and I was given nebuliser and oxygen after. When the groggy feeling left I noticed straight away that I wasn’t remembering little things. I boiled it down to anesthetic. It started to worry me after I got home when I couldn’t remember if I had done something 5 seconds earlier. Normally, I have a very sharp memory and I don’t miss a thing.
    After doing some online research I just knew that it was more than just post op fogginess. That’s when I saw all of your posts. It’s comforting and scary at the same time. I read that ginseng can help. But I have to act now. I was only supposed to be under for 1 hour but I had complications. I’m only 32, with two small children. My memory is extremely important. But I fear that short term has been the worst affected. I will pray to God that he heals this fast… Good Luck everyone…. God speed.

  16. MJB
    Reply

    I am now 48 yo. At the age of 20 I was hit by an automobile. Over the following 2 years I was operated on 56 separate times, each and every time under general anesthesia. Somewhere around the 50th surgery I awoke in post-op with a morphine drip, something new to my post-op care. I immediately noticed that I felt as if I was in a “fog”, something different from the previous 50 some procedures. I have asked many surgeons since that day about my current loss of short term memory. None of the surgeons admitted to any correlation between general anesthesia and memory loss. I am asking if anyone else has experienced the same loss. Please respond…

  17. Sylvia
    Reply

    Greg, how long were you put under for your surgery?

  18. greg
    Reply

    Same thing with me last year, the surgeon and then a neurologist insisted they never heard of his happening to anybody now I find out that maybe a third of all people have this issue for varying lengths of time. I was in college with a 4.0 before the surgery and had to drop out because I can’t read a chapter and answer questions at the end. It has really disrupted my life.

  19. mike
    Reply

    My mother has memory loss and confusion it started after minor surgery in 2005 but she also has Diabetes and Thyriod problems.and wonder if this may be conneted that people who have other medical problems that it accelerate the memory loss and confusion after being under anesthesia !

  20. ma
    Reply

    Not by choice, but have had 17 surgeries; all very major, beginning at age 23. My family and I (at now 73) see no problems. The first few days after, there’s always some confusion, but generally my experience has been it’s not permanent. Notes jotted down the first few days following are hard to read; but believe this is an O2 problem, which reverses itself quickly.
    ma

  21. mw
    Reply

    What a relief to hear that others are suffering this unspeakable lack in memory. I was ashamed to admit this defect. I have endured 16 operations and after what I have read, I guess it is not too bad to have cognitive senility; or is it?

  22. js
    Reply

    I had sinus surgery in 1997 in Wilmington NC. I was never the same after that surgery. I had no awareness that something like this could happen. I am very sensitive to medications and made this known. I had an unusually good memory prior to surgery. I have never gotten it back. When I tried to speak with the surgeon about it, he dismissed the issue. This has been a very real loss for me.

  23. pjj
    Reply

    Have had 7 surgeries over the years. I had this happen after 1, a breast surgery. It lasted for several months. I seemed unable to get organized and accomplish anything during the day. Eventually things got back to normal. I have had problems with comming out from under anesthetic a time or two.

  24. LRK
    Reply

    I too experienced problems after surgery with mental functions. Felt like I was in a fog for 3 to 4 months following surgery. Then I read reports that additional oxygen administered during surgery sped up recovery. I reasoned that perhaps my mental capabilities might be improved by receiving additional oxygen during and after surgery. I cannot confirm that I received additional oxygen during surgery. However I did receive oxygen in recovery and overnight until I was released the next morning. My mind was clear and sharp and I never experienced the “Mental Fog” as in the past. My last surgery was this past April. I will be sure to always make my request for additional oxygen during and after surgery while in the hospital.

  25. osage
    Reply

    I had two abdominal surgeries about four years apart and noticed an immediate mental decline–memory, esp. trouble taking in and remembering new information–after each. I still experience it four years after the 2nd surgery. Shortly after the second surgery, I had other problems that led to my being diagnosed with CFS. But the proximity of all these problems to the surgeries made me wonder about a direct connection. Could the surgeries also have caused the CFS by affecting the hypothalmus (also a part of the brain)?
    One can sometimes NOT avoid having to have surgery. So, are there anesthesics that are less apt to cause cognitive problems that one could request in future surgeries?

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