Memory Loss after Heart Operation

by Dave W.
(South Africa)

I don't have any proof for my memory loss but I am sure it is related to an operation I had at the beginning of 2014.

memory problems story
Via a routine annual medical check-up my local doctor sent me to a heart specialist who discovered a large "bubble" on my Aorta (the main artery leaving the heart). If the bubble were to burst I would die in minutes.

To make the repair you are placed on a life support system and you undergo open heart surgery. When I was returned to intensive care a routine check found that the repaired artery was slowly leaking blood into my chest cavity, so I was immediately returned to the surgical theatre and the whole process repeated.

Because of the additional weakening of the body due to a double operation, plus now the need for additional "drains" to be placed in my body, I was anaesthetized for 48 hours. When I awoke I was heavily sedated for nearly two weeks to stop me from moving and instinctively pulling out the tubes that were in my throat that were used to assist my breathing and eating.

As a result of the above, initially my memory was close to very poor, I had no recollection of visitors etc. As the drugs wore off, so things became clearer and memories returned and my memory has improved greatly over the last nearly 2 years, but it is by no means as good as it used to be, especially the short term memory. Also, when I am driving in areas that are unfamiliar to me my automatic sense of direction, which was excellent, is now almost non-existent.

Naturally I am glad to still be alive, but have others suffered similar memory loss from surgery? Has the brain suffered permanent damage in the memory area? Can a full recovery be anticipated by introducing memory techniques?

I'd love to hear of any similar experiences that your web users may have had.

Doug's Reply. I encourage visitors to this site who have experience with cognitive impairment post-surgery (affecting either themselves or a friend or family member) to post constructive comments below.

There is a clear answer to your first question. Memory problems may linger after major surgery involving general anesthesia. It happens more often than you might think.

As reported by Scientific American in "The Hidden Dangers of Going Under":

"Recent studies indicate...attention and memory can languish for months and, in some cases, years."

This may even have a name. At least one study I've seen refers to "Postoperative Cognitive Decline (POCD)".

With regard to risk, the article "Why Anesthetics Cause Prolonged Memory Loss" in ScienceDaily summarizes this way:

"The likelihood of a patient experiencing cognitive impairment (post-surgery) depends on their age, health, type of surgery and the anesthetic, with chances increasing for more intricate procedures. The incidence is highest in the elderly or those undergoing major surgery such as cardiopulmonary bypass."

Based on that assessment, the fact you spent significant time fully anesthetized and/or deeply sedated, during two major surgeries and two-week post-op time, may have influenced the your chances of experiencing memory deficits afterward.

An interesting question might be whether your anesthesiologist used a brain monitor (for example, during your surgeries, to help manage the depth of anesthesia.

Another might be which anesthetics were used. Experts currently do not rule out use of any of the commonly used general anesthetics. However, anecdotal reports and some studies indicate certain drugs may have lower risk of cognitive side effects post-surgery than others.

For example, a study published in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging found the general anesthetic sevoflurane carried higher risk of worsening memory loss post-surgery compared to propofol:

"A recent randomized trial has shown that patients who received sevoflurane during spinal surgery were more likely to have progression of preexisting mild cognitive impairment compared to controls and to patients who received propofol or epidural anesthesia."

As you can see, you are not alone in experiencing prolonged memory problems after major surgery. In fact, there are a number of personal stories about this posted on the article, "Does General Anesthesia Affect Brain Function." Some report memory problems as much as 6 years afterward.

Unfortunately, I do not know of any sure treatment or cure for post-surgery cognitive impairment. The idea that using memory techniques might help of course appeals to me, but I'm not aware of any studies investigating its efficacy.

Thanks very much for sharing your story. I hope my reply helped answer a few of your questions. Hopefully others will share their experiences and advice here as well.

Best regards,
This is information only. It is not medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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