Does Anesthesia Bring On Alzheimer’s?
August 8th, 2014 by NHI
It’s not unusual to be in a mental fog after surgery, to experience behavioral changes and short-term memory loss. That’s the effect of the anesthetic. It’s a condition called postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD).
For most patients, POCD wears off completely after about 6 hours. For others the effects can last for weeks or even a number of months before the symptoms clear. However for some, memory loss continues indefinitely and they may later be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Is this just an unfortunate coincidence or could there be a connection between the two? Here’s what Natural Health Insiders was able to find out. . .
Hidden epidemic picking off Baby
Leg cramps that wake you up out of a sound sleep. Fingers so cold you’re embarrassed to shake hands at church. Unsightly circles under your eyes–no matter how much sleep you get. Bruises that appear after the slightest bump…and take WEEKS to go away.
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Evidence from Laboratory Studies
The possibility that anesthetics could cause dementia worries some doctors.
Dr. Roderic G. Eckenhoff, who is a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Pennsylvania, carried out a laboratory study using brain cell cultures in 2004. His findings suggest that anesthesia may specifically target Alzheimer’s disease pathways.
He found the amyloid beta proteins that build up and create the plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s became more toxic and aggregated when exposed to an anesthetic.
This was followed up with a mouse study in 2008 that confirmed his earlier findings. It concluded that inhaled anesthetics influence cognition and the growth of amyloid proteins.
According to Dr. Eckenhoff, “We give these drugs to millions of patients every year and blithely ignore that they could have long term effects.”
Another doctor who is concerned is Dr Rudolph Tanzi, a renowned Alzheimer’s genetics researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The Possible Dangers of Isoflurane
Both Dr. Tanzi and Dr. Eckenhoff have focused their attention on a particular drug called isoflurane, a general anesthetic in wide use. They theorize that, because most elderly people will have some amyloid deposits, isoflurane could hasten their growth and toxicity.
When Dr Tanzi’s mother had to have surgery he asked the anesthesiologist to use another inhaled anesthetic called desflurane instead. He was quoted as saying, “We don’t have enough data yet to ban isoflurane but I’m convinced enough that I won’t let my mother have it.”
Zhongcong Xie, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard University, has carried out a number of studies with isoflurane. He concluded that it increases amyloid beta generation and the death of brain cells. He believes its use could lead to long-term brain damage and promote Alzheimer’s.
Evidence from Human Studies
Whether the results of cell cultures and animal studies apply to humans is not known, but there have been several population studies indicating they might.
One evaluated 856 surgical patients aged 70 or more over a six month period. “Our findings suggest an increased risk of dementia after surgery with general anesthesia among older adults.”
The other monitored 9,300 residents of France aged 65 or more for ten years. The researchers found that those people who received a general anesthetic in the first two years of the study had a 35% increased risk of dementia compared to those who were not exposed to an anesthetic.
Another study published in 2012 found “a significant increased frequency of cognitive impairment in people over the age of 60 undergoing major non-cardiac surgery, and highlights that a greater level of cognitive impairment is still evident after 52 weeks in comparison to age-matched controls.”
A demonstration of the growing concern among doctors was that the First International Workshop on Anesthetics and Alzheimer’s Disease took place in 2009.
What Should You Do?
The question of what to do if you are due for surgery is a tricky one.
Not all doctors agree that POCD is due to anesthesia. They feel that it could result from the surgery itself or that simply being hospitalized can boost an older person’s risk of dementia. They point to a lack of reliable human studies. As far as the medical profession is concerned, the jury is still out.
My take is that surgery should be avoided if possible (which I happen to believe anyway, whatever the outcome of the anesthesia debate).
Explore whether the operation you’re considering is really necessary. Are there alternative options? Usually the answer is yes, but you won’t hear it from a conventional doctor. If you want to bone up on alternatives, you have to see a naturopath or an integrative MD – and do your own reading to boot.
I believe, for example, that most heart bypasses can be avoided with lifestyle changes and certain supplements. This drastic, highly invasive procedure is almost always unnecessary if you’re a motivated patient and will do what you need to do.
If surgery is unavoidable, ask your doctor, “Is it necessary to have a general anesthetic? Would it be possible to have a regional or intravenous anesthetic instead? If general anesthesia is advised, is an option other than isoflurane available?”
Meanwhile, let’s hope mainstream medicine gets to work and seeks nonharmful ways to “put people under” during surgery.
Lee Euler, Publisher