Does Surgery Cause Memory Loss?

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

Sometimes there are contradictions between anecdotal evidence and scientific evidence. Even when the two are aligned, there is often a disconnect between the published evidence and the way it is reported in the lay press. Such is the case with the seeming correlation between surgery and memory loss.

A recently published study in Anesthesiology, did not contradict the widespread sense that memory loss is a common consequence of surgery but some of the press coverage indicated that it did. As you can see, the story to which this posting is linked opens with the statement that researchers found "no post-surgical issues in older patients". However, it is clear in the publication (and even from the rest of the story) that there were indeed two areas of concern.

First, in patients who did not recover well physically from the surgical procedure, lingering cognitive issues were indeed present. That is essentially a confirmation of the link between surgery and cognitive impairment.

Second, even among those patients who had complete physical recoveries, cognition was not always fully restored until a period of six months to a year later. To suggest that anything short of a permanent disability should be ignored is not really a defensible approach to reporting this science.

Both of these findings are perfectly consistent with the anecdotal belief that cognition is sometimes impaired following a surgical procedure. It is unclear why the author of this article chose to open with a contradictory position but should serve as a reminder to readers that scientific research must be carefully interpreted and many journalists do not exercise care when reporting on new findings.

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