Senior woman and caregiver sitting on sofa

The Main Causes of Confusion in Seniors After Surgery

Are you or an elderly loved one preparing for an upcoming surgery? If so, you might be wondering about the likelihood of experiencing postoperative confusion and various ways to prevent such confusion from occurring. For patients who are elderly, recovery after surgery can be daunting, and limiting possible postoperative side effects is important. So, is confusion normal after surgery? And what causes confusion in the elderly after surgery?

Is Confusion Normal After Surgery?

As you age, you become more at risk for confusion or short-term memory loss following surgery because, according to James D. Grant – president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) – “the aging brain is more vulnerable to anesthesia and surgery.” There are also certain age-related conditions that increase the likelihood of postoperative confusion in elderly patients, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, lung disease or experiencing a prior stroke.

Post-surgery confusion in older patients is common, with the most frequent cause being the type of anesthesia used during the operation. For major operations, like open-heart surgery or a knee or hip replacement – common surgeries among seniors, general anesthesia is often the go-to, as opposed to regional or local anesthesia. This is because with general anesthesia, you are rendered unconscious and are unable to be aware of or feel sensations of pain. Unfortunately, one of the more frequent side effects of using general anesthesia is that you may feel drowsy afterward, which can increase feelings of confusion. However, this drowsiness does usually recede after a few hours. If the use of general anesthesia is a concern for you or a loved one, talk to your doctor about other options for anesthesia use during your surgery.

Types of Post-Surgery Confusion in Older Patients

When it comes to postoperative confusion or memory loss after surgery, elderly patients are more likely to experience one of two anesthesia-related disorders:

  • Postoperative delirium. Postoperative delirium in seniors may not be noticeable until a day or two after surgery is complete, but once it hits, you may experience confusion, disorientation, or have problems with your memory or attention span. This delirium comes and goes, but in most cases, it does not last longer than a week or two.
  • Postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD). In comparison, POCD is a bit more serious and can potentially lead to longer-term memory loss or concentration issues. With POCD, the symptoms are a bit more advanced than simple confusion or lack of awareness and include not only issues with memory, but also impairments of dexterity and the ability to combine tasks. If you are concerned about POCD, ask your doctor to conduct a baseline mental exam prior to surgery, as comparing your results prior to and following surgery is one of the only ways to determine if you actually have POCD. How common is it? According to one study, about 10% of individuals aged 60+ have POCD three months after surgery.

Limiting Confusion After Surgery

Looking for ways to limit confusion after your upcoming surgery? Studies have shown that preventing postoperative confusion or delirium is possible approximately 40 percent of the time for seniors who are in the hospital.

The American Society of Anesthesiologists offers six tips to reduce postoperative confusion for seniors, including conducting a pre-surgery cognitive exam to use as a baseline for comparison and checking with your physician to ensure the medications you take postoperatively will not interfere with your memory or cause additional confusion. Of course, you should also talk to your doctor about your concerns regarding postoperative confusion, as they may have some suggestions specific to your individual case.

If you will be moving to a rehabilitation or nursing facility following your stay, like Hillsboro Rehabilitation & Health Care Center, your care team can also work with your physician if signs of confusion appear after being discharged from the hospital. At Hillsboro, our care team of licensed therapists works in conjunction with your physician, dietitians, the nursing team, and a social service director to personalize your care plan and to get you back on the road to recovery faster.

Recover and Renew at Hillsboro Rehab

At Hillsboro Rehabilitation & Health Care Center, we offer quality skilled care designed to meet your needs while supporting your lifestyle and independence. With nutritious and appetizing meals prepared by our team of in-house cooks, daily fitness and wellness programs, housekeeping and linen services and a range of skilled nursing services, what more could you ask for in a rehabilitation community? And with our thrive in the Courtyard Memory Care program, you can rest assured we know how to identify and treat any issues of postoperative confusion as quickly and effectively as possible.

Want to learn more about what Hillsboro can offer you or your loved one following surgery? Contact us today with questions.