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Female patient listening to doctor

Recovery from Open Heart Surgery in the Elderly

Did you know that approximately 85.6 million Americans in the United States suffer from cardiovascular disease? And of those 85.6 million Americans, more than half fall into the 60+ age band, with the percentage of cardiovascular disease cases increasing to 85% of individuals aged 80+, according to a 2016 update from the American Heart Association. If you or a senior loved one suffer from cardiovascular disease, you may eventually need to undergo some form of open-heart surgery at the recommendation of your doctor. Naturally, this is a scary thought that raises many questions: how long does it take to fully recover from open heart surgery? Is it safe for an 80-year-old to get open heart surgery? What is the most common complication after open heart surgery? In this post, we’ll answer each of these questions to help put your mind at ease!

Is Open Heart Surgery Safe for the Elderly?

For many years, performing open heart surgery on elderly patients was considered too risky as an increase in age is associated with increased risks of negative outcomes following surgery. However, as surgical techniques have advanced and patient care – especially for octogenarians – has improved, more and more surgeons are feeling comfortable recommending open-heart surgery for their elderly patients. In fact, in 2008, a study of more than 1000 patients aged 80+ indicated that operative mortality rates had been reduced from 15% to 2.2%, with more than 97% of participants reporting an improved quality of life following their procedures.

Of course, this doesn’t mean open heart surgery is completely safe for the elderly; rather, it simply suggests old age should not be a disqualifying factor in and of itself for these procedures. Doctors should consider the fact that individuals aged 80+ do tend to suffer from a higher number of risk factors or comorbidities that may increase the risks associated with undergoing open-heart surgery. Some of these risk factors or predictors of a poor outcome in the elderly include:

  • Preoperative: diabetes mellitus; recent (<30 days) myocardial infarction, renal dysfunction, obesity, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), smoking, and being of female gender.
  • Intraoperative: experiencing a long cardiopulmonary bypass time or undergoing emergency operation or reoperation.
  • Postoperative: atrial fibrillation or post-operative bleeding.

The three most common complications following open-heart surgery include a prolonged ventilation time in the ICU, reoperation for bleeding, or suffering from pneumonia.

Open Heart Surgery Recovery Time for Elderly Patients

So what is the recovery time like following open-heart surgery? Well, that varies based on the individual. Often, you can expect to spend 7-10 days in the hospital following surgery, with at least one day in the ICU immediately following the operation. This stay may be longer if you experience complications.

In terms of healing times, it can take anywhere from 6-8 weeks or longer for your sternum to heal completely based on individual risk factors and post-surgery complications, as well as your rehabilitation experience following surgery.

How Do You Care for Someone After Open Heart Surgery?

The thought of caring for your spouse after open heart surgery may be daunting. How do you know what to do or how to take care of them? Don’t worry: your doctor will likely send you home with a lengthy list of post-surgical care tips, possibly including some suggestions for what to wear after open heart surgery, like a post-thorax vest to protect your loved one’s sternum.

The most important thing to remember about caring for a loved one after surgery is to be prepared: know what kinds of meals might be best for healing, what type of transportation schedule you’ll need to set up to get them to and from rehabilitation appointments, what kinds of home-health aids they might need (canes, walkers, crutches, a first-floor bed, etc.), and how to help manage their pain or nausea levels.

Post-surgical rehabilitation will likely include some form of physical therapy or occupational therapy. You’ll want to discuss options for senior rehabilitation centers with your doctor to ensure you understand the basics of rehabilitation therapy and how to choose the senior care facility that’s right for you or your loved one. For more information, read our blog post about how to determine when a senior might need rehabilitation therapy!

The St. Paul’s Rehabilitation Experience

Located conveniently near you, St. Paul’s Senior Community offers comprehensive senior rehabilitation services to provide support for you and your loved one through any upcoming medical procedures, injury recovery, or other health concerns. We know you’re likely to have questions, and we’d be happy to answer them for you. To get more information, please contact us. Our team is ready to help!