Anecdotal evidence about people suffering cognitive impairment after undergoing general anesthesia is common, but it is generally considered safe. However, studies have linked the use of one common general anesthetic to the development of Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Sevoflurane is a common anesthetic used before and during surgery. Although it can be used alone as general anesthesia, it is often used in conjunction with other drugs. Medical researchers have noted that frequent exposure to general anesthesia does correlate with earlier onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies on mice show that sevoflurane may be a cause of that trend. People with Alzheimer’s disease develop plaques in their brains, which are caused when beta-amyloid proteins group together. This occurs to some degree in healthy brains as well, but the process is more accelerated and notable in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s. Mice that were exposed to sevoflurane showed elevated levels of enzymes that are known to cause beta-amyloid proteins to clump together, possibly increasing the likelihood of further degeneration.
Studies of patient populations also link sevoflurane to Alzheimer’s disease. Patients who were given sevoflurane were more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those who never received the drug. Mild cognitive impairment is sometimes an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, but it does not always progress further. People with mild cognitive impairment may suffer memory loss or become unable to perform everyday tasks.
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Patients who are at a high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease may want to consider avoiding elective surgeries that require general anesthesia to help mitigate this risk. Some surgeons are also switching to regional anesthesia whenever possible. Regional anesthetics numb a large portion of the body but do not make the patient unconscious. If you are concerned about the risk of sevoflurane and Alzheimer’s disease, talk to the surgeon before the procedure. Although there are some links between sevoflurane and cognitive impairment, more research is needed to learn about how it and other anesthetics affect the brain.