Before you have any kind of surgery, especially if you are middle-aged or older, you need to be aware of the brain damage that often results from general anesthesia – the kind where you lose consciousness.

Studies now show that this problem has been drastically underestimated by medical professionals.

Being “put under” and operated on can fog up your thinking and memory skills after the procedure is over. And probably worst of all is the patient may never completely recover the lost function.

I’m about to undergo a medical test myself that involves general anesthesia. I’ve made the decision that the test is necessary and there’s no really good choice. But it’s not a decision I take lightly. . .

Here’s why I’m concerned. . .

According to a study at the Mayo Clinic, surgery and anesthesia lead to a measurable, albeit slight, decline in cognitive abilities. The problem is greater for seniors than for younger patients.

The research, which involved 2,000 people, showed that being anesthetized for an operation in your later years often leads to long-term declines in brain function.1

The effects on the brain are usually not huge, but in people who are already experiencing some mental slippage – even if the loss is subtle and not very obvious – the additional changes following surgery can significantly impair thinking and memory.

The Mayo researchers note that the link in older people between undergoing anesthesia and then experiencing memory problems has been debated for quite a while. And they also highlight the fact that lab studies on animals suggest that inhaled anesthetic drugs may cause brain changes that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. (I guess the other option may be to get the drugs by injection.)

This anesthesia-caused brain problem has become so widespread, the medical community has come up with a name for it – “perioperative cognitive dysfunction” (PND). And according to a report by a medical group put together to study the problem, the condition occurs most frequently in patients in their sixties and older.2

According to this report, PND after anesthesia can consist of delirium – the patient becomes disoriented, suffers illusions, and becomes unable to understand where they are – or the result may also be a general decline in memory and cognitive abilities. That decline can occur immediately after surgery and anesthesia or set in as much as a year later.

“The majority of patients have no apparent cognitive issues after surgery, but some patients describe having what they call ‘brain fog,’ which can last for weeks to months, but then generally clears up after that,” says researcher Roderic G. Eckenhoff, who is the vice chair for scientific activities of the American Society of Anesthesiologists’ Ad Hoc Committee on Perioperative Brain Health Initiative. “They’ll say, ‘I can’t do the crossword puzzle anymore, or I can’t find my car anymore.”3

Making Surgical Decisions

In researching what to do when deciding for or against surgery, I have learned there is no one-size-fits-all general recommendation that applies to everyone.

It seems to me that when you’re getting up in years and you’re over the age of 60, if there’s an alternative to surgery for a problem you have, you should avoid surgery if at all possible – and especially surgery that requires general anesthesia.

But you should also know that some researchers believe it’s the stress of surgery – not necessarily anesthesia – that can cause brain issues.

I can easily believe this. I’m a firm believer in “energy medicine” – a general term that encompasses most of what conventional doctors don’t or won’t believe about healing. I think being cut open is being cut open, regardless of whether you’re conscious or not while it happens. It’s an enormous trauma that registers on the whole body, not merely the small part of it that produces “consciousness” (and by the way, no one quite knows what consciousness is anyway.)

Surgery Generates Inflammation

Even in terms of conventional medicine, surgery is a bigger trauma than any surgeon is likely to tell you.

“Most surgery causes peripheral inflammation,” says Dr. Eckenhoff. “In young people, the brain remains largely isolated from that inflammation, but with older people, our blood-brain barrier becomes kind of leaky. That contributes to neuroinflammation, which activates a whole cascade of events in the brain that can accelerate the ongoing aging process.”

Added to that, I even found a study performed in Australia that shows angioplasty and catheterization of your heart and coronary arteries – when you don’t even undergo general anesthesia – may lead to brain fog and other cognitive issues.4

But certainly if you need a coronary artery opened up with a catheterization procedure, you might have to take the risk of a consequent memory problem. It’s your call.

One thing I can say with confidence: If you already have noticeable memory problems, you should avoiding unnecessary surgery and anesthesia. The studies I’ve seen show that those who are already slipping a bit are at the highest risk of seeing even more loss of function after surgery.


  1. https://bjanaesthesia.org/article/S0007-0912(18)30461-6/abstract
  2. https://bjanaesthesia.org/article/S0007-0912(17)54082-9/abstract
  3. https://khn.org/news/what-we-know-and-dont-know-about-memory-loss-after-surgery/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5907560/

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