Drifting out of an anesthetic haze, it’s common for those who have just undergone surgery to temporarily experience memory lapses, confusion and a shorter attention span.
But when these symptoms are prolonged, is it possible that general anesthesia can trigger dementia in older adults? The answer, so far, is unclear.
As Scientific American reports, most evidence has suggested there is no confirmed link between anesthesia and an increased likelihood of developing dementia. Still, it remains an area of interest for medical professionals: recent studies done on human and animal cells revealed that—in high doses especially—anesthesia can increase the buildup up proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Preliminary studies conducted in 2004 and 2007 at the University of Pennsylvania found that mice that inhaled general anesthetic experienced a faster buildup of amyloid beta—a protein which is linked to Alzheimer’s—in their brains.
Still, human brains are much more complicated than those of mice, and these findings don’t necessarily prove a concrete connection between anesthesia and the development of Alzheimer’s.
Further, a 2013 Mayo clinic study compared medical records of 900 adults over 45 who had developed dementia with a similar group of adults who hadn’t. Both groups were found to have undergone surgery with anesthesia at a similar rate, which made researchers doubt anesthesia posed a significant risk.
Some experts, like University of Pennsylvania anesthesiologist Dr. Roderic Eckenhoff believe the link might have to do more with surgery itself than with anesthetic.
Inflammation occurs during surgery in order for the body to try to protect itself from the surgical wound. Eckenhoff believes that neuroinflammation resulting from surgery can trigger Alzheimer’s if the patient was already predisposed.
“We don’t think that anesthesia and surgery actually cause Alzheimer’s or cause dementia,” he told Scientific American. “We think that it interacts with individual vulnerabilities where if you’re already predisposed to getting something like this, this speeds it up.”
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