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Surgical patients often receive routine postoperative mechanical ventilation with excellent outcomes. However, older patients who receive prolonged mechanical ventilation may have a significantly different long-term trajectory not fully captured in 30-day postoperative metrics. The objective of this study is to describe patterns of mortality and hospitalization for Medicare beneficiaries 66 years old and older who have major surgery with and without prolonged mechanical ventilation.Retrospective cohort study.Hospitals throughout the United States.Five percent random national sample of elderly Medicare beneficiaries (age ≥ 66 yr) who underwent 1 of 227 operations previously defined as high risk during an inpatient stay at an acute care hospital between January 1, 2005, and November 30, 2009.None.We identified 117,917 episodes for older patients who had high-risk surgery; 4% received prolonged mechanical ventilation during the hospitalization. Patients who received prolonged mechanical ventilation had higher 1-year mortality rate than patients who did not have prolonged ventilation (64% [95% CI, 62–65%] vs 17% [95% CI, 16.4–16.9%]). Thirty-day survivors who received prolonged mechanical ventilation had a 1-year mortality rate of 47% (95% CI, 45–48%). Thirty-day survivors who did not receive prolonged ventilation were more likely to be discharged home than patients who received prolonged ventilation 71% versus 10%. Patients who received prolonged ventilation and were not discharged by postoperative day 30 had a substantially increased 1-year mortality (adjusted hazard ratio, 4.39 [95% CI, 3.29–5.85]) compared with patients discharged home by day 30. Hospitalized 30-day survivors who received prolonged mechanical ventilation and died within 6 months of their index procedure spent the majority of their remaining days hospitalized.Older patients who require prolonged mechanical ventilation after high-risk surgery and survive 30 days have a significant 1-year risk of mortality and high burdens of treatment. This difficult trajectory should be considered in surgical decision making and has important implications for surgeons, intensivists, and patients.