Skip to main content

Seniors and surgery

Age alone isn't a reason to avoid surgery. In the end, no matter what your age, the most important factors to consider are whether the rewards of surgery outweigh the risks.

When it comes to surgery, age can be a factor. But it shouldn't prevent you from having an operation you need.

"People that are older tend to have more medical issues that need to be assessed before surgery," says Stephen McCollam, MD, a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. "But age alone is not a problem."

Surgery concerns

It's very common for seniors to undergo surgery. In fact, millions of older Americans have surgery each year.

"Age can be a factor with surgery," Dr. McCollam says. "But as long as your heart and lungs are in good shape and you're in good health, your chances for a successful outcome are very good."

A checkup from your regular doctor is a good idea if you're considering elective surgery.

"Have your doctor check your heart to make sure there is no sign of problems," Dr. McCollam says. "Surgery can be somewhat stressful, and you need to make sure your heart will function well under stress."

Also, make sure you tell your doctor about any medications you are using, including over-the-counter drugs and alternative treatments.

You can also prepare for surgery by living a healthy lifestyle. Try to eat nutritious foods, get regular exercise, maintain a healthy weight and don't smoke. The better shape you are in before surgery, the better your chances for a successful outcome.

Questions to ask

If you have questions or concerns about surgery, it's vital that you talk to the surgeon before you make any decisions.

"Seniors tend to have more questions about surgery than younger folks, yet they rarely voice concerns to surgeons," Dr. McCollam says.

Dr. McCollam and the National Institute on Aging say you can make a more informed decision about surgery by asking questions such as:

  • What is the surgery? Do I need it now or can it wait?
  • Can another treatment be tried instead of surgery?
  • How will the surgery affect my health and lifestyle?
  • What kind of anesthesia will be used? What are the side effects and risks of having anesthesia?
  • Will I be in pain? If so, how long will it last?
  • Will it be inpatient or outpatient surgery?
  • When can I go home after surgery?
  • What will the recovery be like? How long will it take for me to feel better?
  • What will happen if I don't have surgery?
  • Will I need someone to live with me and take care of me after surgery?
  • What kind of medications will I need to take during recovery? Will new medications interfere with drugs I am currently taking?
  • What are the risks associated with this type of surgery?

Since receiving so much information can be overwhelming, it's a good idea to bring someone else along when you talk to the surgeon.

"A second set of ears can remember more facts," Dr. McCollam says. "You should always welcome the opportunity to have someone accompany you to the doctor's office."

Risks and rewards

After you've learned all you can about the surgery you are considering, it's up to you and your family to decide whether or not to go ahead with the procedure. Ultimately, the most important factor in making the decision is whether the rewards of surgery outweigh the risks.

"You have to decide if the goals you want to achieve through surgery are worth the risk," Dr. McCollam says. "If the rewards outweigh the risks, you shouldn't let your age stand in the way."

reviewed 10/6/2019

Related stories