Memory and Anesthesia

Memory loss can be aggravated by many lifestyle factors. But  physicians are now finding that medical treatments requiring anesthesia may also have a sudden, negative impact on Alzheimer’s patients — even in early stages of the disease.


In her recent article for InSight, a Memory Center publication,  writer Lisa Bain describes the case of Doris Reimann, who woke up after hip surgery unable to speak  clearly. Doris never walked again and failed to regain her mental faculties. Similar accounts of post-op cognitive decline prompted Dr. Steve Arnold  to look at the connection between surgery, anesthesia, and Alzheimer’s. Other Penn researchers have done the same.

Dr. Roderic Echkenhoff  has observed the results of studies done with lab animals. Anesthesia has been shown to produce “lesions in the brains of mice that mimic those found in brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.” But surgery itself is a catalyst for the brain’s inflammatory response. It is difficult to determine which of the two factors carry the greatest risk.

While there is abundant anecdotal information from families and clinicians, Dr. Arnold explains that there is not enough data to suggest that surgery or anesthesia should always be avoided. After all, surgery is usually recommended when people are suffering pain that can’t be managed in other ways. Nevertheless, he urges families to talk to their “primary care physician, surgeon, and anesthesiologist about their concerns before surgery with anesthesia” is carried out. This kind of conversation can’t wait until after the operation!

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