Postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD) is an objectively measured decline in cognition postoperatively compared with preoperative function. POCD has been considered in the anesthetic and surgical literature in isolation of cognitive decline which is common in the elderly within the community and where it is labeled as mild cognitive impairment, neurocognitive disorder, or dementia. This narrative review seeks to place POCD in the broad context of cognitive decline in the general population. Cognitive change after anesthesia and surgery was described over 100 years ago, initially as delirium and dementia. The term POCD was applied in the 1980s to refer to cognitive decline assessed purely on the basis of a change in neuropsychological test results, but the construct has been the subject of great heterogeneity. The cause of POCD remains unknown. Increasing age, baseline cognitive impairment, and fewer years of education are consistently associated with POCD.
In geriatric medicine, cognitive disorders defined and classified as mild cognitive impairment, neurocognitive disorder, and dementia have definitive clinical features. To identify the clinical impact of cognitive impairment associated with the perioperative period, POCD has recently been redefined in terms of these geriatric medicine constructs so that the short-, medium-, and long-term clinical and functional impact can be elucidated. As the aging population present in ever increasing numbers for surgery, many individuals with overt or subclinical dementia require anesthesia. Anesthesiologists must be equipped to understand and manage these patients.