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Weighing Risks of a Major Surgery: 7 Questions Older Americans Should Ask Their Surgeon

 

Larry McMahon, who turned 80 in December, is weighing whether to undergo a major surgery. Over the past five years, his back pain has intensified. Physical therapy, muscle relaxants, and injections aren’t offering relief.

“It’s a pain that leaves me hardly able to do anything,” he said.

Should McMahon, a retired Virginia state trooper who now lives in Southport, North Carolina, try spinal fusion surgery, a procedure that can take up to six hours? (Eight years ago, he had a lumbar laminectomy, another arduous back surgery.)

“Will I recover in six months — or in a couple of years? Is it safe for a man of my age with various health issues to be put to sleep for a long period of time?” McMahon asked, relaying some of his concerns to me in a phone conversation.

Older adults contemplating major surgery often aren’t sure whether to proceed. In many cases, surgery can be lifesaving or improve a senior’s quality of life. But advanced age puts people at greater risk of unwanted outcomes, including difficulty with daily activities, extended hospitalizations, problems moving around, and the loss of independence.

I wrote in November about a new study that shed light on some risks seniors face when having invasive procedures. But readers wanted to know more. How does one determine if potential benefits from major surgery are worth the risks? And what questions should older adults ask as they try to figure this out? I asked several experts for their recommendations. Here’s some of what they suggested.

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