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How Anesthesia Can Impact Safe Driving Abilities in Older Adults

June 18, 2024

As our population continues to age, more and more seniors undergo surgical procedures requiring anesthesia, which can pose hidden challenges to their cognitive functioning and, by extension, their ability to drive safely after surgery.  

Cognitive Risks Associated with Anesthesia

Research has consistently shown that older adults are at a higher risk of developing postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD) and delirium, which can affect memory, attention, and problem-solving skills​, all of which are cognitive attributes required for safe driving.    

A study by the Mayo Clinic highlighted that exposure to anesthesia in individuals over 70 can lead to subtle, yet meaningful, declines in cognitive functions. The research emphasized that these declines could accelerate existing cognitive impairments, making it crucial for those affected and their families to be aware of these risks before undergoing surgery.

The Link Between Anesthesia, Cognitive Decline, and Driving Ability

The American Society of Anesthesiologists reports that the after-effects of anesthesia can last from days to weeks, and occasionally longer. During this period, the affected seniors may experience fluctuations in their cognitive status, which can directly impair their driving abilities, making it dangerous for them to operate a motor vehicle.  Such cognitive impairments can lead to slower reaction times, reduced attention to traffic signals, and difficulty in making quick decisions on the road.  


The potential cognitive side effects of anesthesia in older adults highlights the need for careful preoperative assessments, informed decision-making regarding the necessity of surgery, and postoperative monitoring. Families and caregivers should be vigilant about these risks and carefully manage the senior's transition back to daily activities such as driving, ensuring safety and well-being.

For anyone looking into surgery options for themselves or an elderly family member, discussing these concerns with medical professionals can help mitigate risks and better prepare for postoperative recovery, especially when it comes to tasks requiring high cognitive demand like driving.

Note about the Author: The founder of Beyond Driving with Dignity, Matt Gurwell, saw firsthand the need for a program of this kind while serving as an Ohio state trooper. He created the program to help families navigate what can be a difficult and emotional conversation, and ultimately to reduce the number of unnecessary and avoidable death notices state troopers have to deliver.

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