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. Lynne

    In March, 2013 I had brain surgery to remove a blood clot. I was paralyzed when I woke but could hear and see, but could not correctly comprehend what my senses were relaying to me. I fought to move, speak remember how the heck I got here. When I finally made it home I did not remember what I did on a day to day basis. I had therapists coming to my home checking on me and helping me with daily functions if needed.

    After looking through photo albums and files I gathered I lost bits and pieces of memory over about a 5 yr span – heck, I even found out I was married and divorced!

    3 things that really bug me besides having the time-lapse memory problem is that I confuse hallucinations I had in the hospital with real life. To decide reality I weigh how ridiculous it seems for it to be true or false.. The second thing is when I walk from one room to another or outdoors to indoors I feel like I’m on the show Quantum Leap in that in that transition with the blink of an eye I forget what the heck I’m doing… ex. I was in Stop&Shop last week and walked out into the sun light – it was like I blinked and ended up somewhere else, but I was walking with determination like I knew where I was going so I kept the pace in the same directions because I felt embarrassed… I was thinking I’d figure out where I was if I kept going… It was not till I turned around to see where I had been that it dawned on me. It’s happened to me before but indoors… outdoors is much scarier. The 3rd thing is my eye sight… I get dark objects pass quickly in front of me or off to the side… some times I quickly move so it doesn’t hit me or I don’t hit it… it scares me driving because can avoid objects that aren’t there. I have an opthamology appt. next week and hopefully that will work.

    I am just afraid I’m going to forget something important/dangerous or cause something bad because of one or all of these issues.

    I feel a little crazy and signed myself up for a therapist (after the shopping episode) so maybe that will help. Also a friend suggested looking on the internet to see if other people are having any of the same problems… guess that person was right. Thanks all!

  2. Laina

    Like most of you who posted here, I am having memory problems. I had to have open-heart surgery last Aug, to have my mitral valve replaced, due to 60% blood flowing in the wrong direction. They said that surgery took about 5.5 hours. Twelve weeks later, I had to have a total hysterectomy, due to suspected cancer. They had to cut me up and down due to the recent heart surgery. I think that surgery was about 3 hours. Ever since waking up from the heart surgery, my memory has not been the same, and to the point of really weird things happening that frighten me.

    For example: I went to take a shower and didn’t have any hot water. So as I stood there ready to shower, I tried to figure out why I didn’t have any hot water. You see, it didn’t make any sense because we had the hot water heater replaced, a few months ago. I had to hurry up and get ready for an appointment, so I had to wash my hair. I’ve been having major back issues. Trying to think this through, I wondered if I could bend far enough to get my head under the faucet of the bathroom sink. Meanwhile, I turned on the water in the sink. To my surprise, I had hot water coming from that faucet. So I’m thinking, this is weird, why would I have hot water in the sink but not the shower. So I turned the water off in the shower and then turned it back on again and had hot water. The scary part is I’ve lived in the same house for nearly 12 years but forgot how to turn the water on in the shower.

    Things like this affect my everyday life. I have not returned to work yet and I am terrified to do so!!! I do not want to return and lose my job because I cannot do my job. My job requires that I troubleshoot and resolve technical problems, relying heavily on my memory. Someone asked me, what should have been a simple question, the other day, that I know I’ve answered multiple times, but I don’t remember what the answer was, and now I don’t even remember their question. What kind of doctor could help me by testing my memory? Has anyone who still has memory problems ever remember to come back to this page to give an update? Hmmm. My primary care physician said to see a psychiatrist. Obviously, he thinks I’m crazy. LOL I’m not, I just feel like I’m losing my mind, and depressed from all the stress of what has happened and all the doctors appointments bleeding me of $30 co-pays each time. Can anyone relate?

    My vision scares me too. Not only do I see floaters but I see what I refer to as “rivers.” When I look at a television or computer screen, part of what I’m looking at appears to be blacked out. My doctors said to see an ophthalmologist, so I did. He said I have 20/20 vision. I told him that cannot be correct, because I guessed at 3 of the letters, (obviously I guessed correctly), plus I wear 2.75 reading glasses. Meanwhile, I know I shouldn’t be driving because I don’t have any warning when I’ll see those “rivers”.

    • t

      I had back surgery in 2010. I could not remember any of the kids names when I went back to work. I poo pooed it off as something the anesthesia. Now it is 5 years later and I still get moments. I can not retain names well anymore. I have forgotten other teachers names that I have worked around. I may only forget the name for a short time, but it still is weird. I have walked into the wrong classroom. Little stuff… but it still bothers me. I was 43 when I had that surgery and I am now 48. I was under for 6.5 hours for a 360 anterior/posterior spinal fusion. Everything else seems fine. Just names for the most part.

    • NA

      I have had the SAME issue. I had open heart surgery a few years ago and my mind has not worked right since. Memory is the worse. I often can’t figure out how to do simple things like shower (turn on water, what to do once water one etc.) I also get lost in familiar locations all the time. It is like I can’t process cues that would normally tap my memory for information. I joke that my brain is broken but the reality is I am not safe leaving my place alone and can no longer take care of many of my basic tasks, yet alone work. I have no clue how to help it. I have tried various treatments and medications and no benefit.

  3. Anthony Smith

    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.

  4. G

    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.

  5. gregorykgolden

    About 30 minutes

  6. Gaby

    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.

  7. Deji

    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.

  8. Trudy

    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??

  9. rebecca

    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.

  10. misty

    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.

  11. becky

    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.

  12. Allissa

    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.

  13. Kate

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

  14. Kate

    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

  15. greg

    I was under about 30 minutes.

  16. A. Lee

    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 :(

  17. Jody A

    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.

  18. MJB

    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…

  19. Sylvia

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

  20. greg

    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.

  21. mike

    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 !

  22. ma

    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.

  23. mw

    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?

  24. js

    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.

  25. pjj

    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.

  26. LRK

    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.

  27. osage

    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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