Mind Over Matter? The Hidden Epidemic of Cognitive Dysfunction in the Older Surgical Patient

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Abstract

Objective:

The aim of this study was to highlight the vulnerability of the aging brain to surgery and anesthesia, examine postoperative cognitive outcomes, and recommend possible interventions.

Background:

Surgeons are facing increasingly difficult ethical and clinical decisions given the rapidly expanding aging demographic. Cognitive function is not routinely assessed either preoperatively or postoperatively. Potential short and long-term cognitive implications are rarely discussed with the patient despite evidence that postoperative cognitive impairment occurs in up to 65% of older patients. Furthermore, surgery may accelerate the trajectory of cognitive decline and dementia.

Methods:

An electronic search was conducted using Pubmed/Medline. References from selected studies were cross-referenced and relevant articles retrieved. Data were summarized in a narrative format.

Results:

There is a hidden epidemic of cognitive dysfunction in the perioperative setting. Up to 40% of patients who develop postoperative delirium (POD) never return to their preoperative cognitive baseline. POD can lead to postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD), a more prolonged cognitive impairment associated with longer length of hospital stay and cost, premature withdrawal from the workforce, and greater 1-year mortality. Standardized perioperative cognitive assessment is needed to enable progress. Improving outcomes will depend on a multifaceted approach, including correction of modifiable preoperative risk factors and prompt treatment of POD. Risk factors are discussed and possible interventional strategies are presented.

Conclusion:

Closer preoperative collaboration between surgeons, geriatricians, and anesthetists will enable identification of complex at-risk older patients. A paradigm shift in the approach to management of the older surgical patient is critical to improve postoperative cognitive outcomes in modern surgery.

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