Jan 9, 2009 | 25
Every year, about half a million Americans undergo open-heart surgery. Roughly 60 percent of them experience some degree of mental decline after the surgery, a phenomenon that surgeons call "pumphead." A new study in this month's Annals of Thoracic Surgery sheds light on possible causes of the mysterious condition, which in some patients is temporary but in others may last a lifetime.
"It has been well-documented that there is an issue of cognitive decline in the period of time [a few months] immediately after surgery," says lead study author James Slater, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Atlantic Health System in Morristown, N.J. Slater says the amount of cognitive decline varies; some patients have a tough time concentrating, others have trouble with memory and learning. Slater recalls, for instance, a onetime crossword whiz who, post-surgery, could no longer do The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. (Read about Bruce Stutz's experience with "pumphead" in the June 2003 issue of Scientific American.)
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