Health Team

You're never too old for heart surgery

Students show that people over 80 can get open-heart surgery and recover fine, if they are given enough care.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — You might never be too old for open-heart surgery.

For years, cardiologists and heart surgeons have shied away from operating on elderly patients. Instead, they have preferred to prescribe medications.

However, studies presented at a recent American Heart Association conference show that age should not disqualify patients, including those over 80 years old. In fact, open-heart surgery might give them many more quality years.

Elizabeth Carver, 86, of Jackson, was in the category of heart patients considered too old for surgery. And nine months ago, even a little work in the kitchen was too much for her.

She had gotten a pacemaker and several stents to open blocked heart vessels, but this time, doctors said only open-heart surgery could help.

"(They) told me at first that I wasn't a candidate for the operation and that was because of my age," Carver said.

However, conventional thinking about elderly patients and heart surgery is changing.

"It's amazing how well the older patients do with surgery," Dr. Robert Hunter, a heart surgeon at WakeMed in Raleigh, said.

Mortality and complication rates among patents over 80 years old are higher, but not significantly higher than the rates among younger patients, Hunter said. And success among older patients is greater when physicians with different specialties help review each case and consider the patient's risk factors.

"The key to these patients is to prevent those complications before they happen," Hunter said.

The study done by Mount Sinai Medical Center looked at more than 1,000 octogenarians from 1989. Overall, 90 percent survived their surgery, 65 percent survived without surgery-related complications and more than that without long-term complications.

Older patients recover more slowly than younger patients, but if they are watched closely over those first critical months, they can do well.

Carver and her husband, D.J., decided to risk surgery because without it, she would only have had a few months to live.

"If she has to have surgery, I'd like for Dr. Hunter to do it, because he operated on me eight years ago," D.J. Carver said.

And since the surgery, Carver has done well.

"I do what I want to do here in the house and am thankful for what I can do. And what I can't do, I don't let worry me," Carver said. "And I'm glad they changed their mind and did the operation."



Allen Mask, M.D., Reporter
Rick Armstrong, Photographer
Anne Johnson, Web Editor

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