(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – In recent years, doctors have embraced “pre-habilitation” for patients leading up to surgery, which may include exercise, a healthy diet and controlling any chronic conditions. However, none of these interventions address postoperative delirium, a complication especially common in older patients that causes mental confusion leading to longer hospital stays, slower recoveries and even an increased risk of death. Now, a new study by researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center finds the brain can be prepared for surgery just as the body can – by keeping the mind active and challenged.
Experts call this “neurobics”: brain exercises designed to create new neural pathways and increase cognition. To study the effects of neurobics on delirium prevention, researchers gave 251 pre-surgical patients over the age of 60 a tablet loaded with a brain-game app and asked them to play an hour of games each day for 10 days leading up to a major procedure requiring general anesthesia.
“Not all patients played the games as much as we asked, but those who played any at all saw some benefit,” said Dr. Michelle Humeidan, an anesthesiologist at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center and lead author of the study. “Patients who practiced neurobics were 40% less likely to experience postoperative delirium than those who did not, and the results improved the more hours they played.”
Those who played five to 10 hours cut their risk by more than half, and those who played the prescribed 10 hours or more had a 61 percent reduction in delirium rates compared to the control group.
“Using the app was ideal for this study because we could easily track how long and how often patients were playing,” Humeidan said. “But things like reading the newspaper, doing crossword puzzles or anything you enjoy to challenge your mind for an hour each day would likely help prevent delirium and improve your mental fitness.”
Those who didn’t play brain games before surgery were also more likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit during their postoperative hospital stay. Future research will explore exactly how brain games impact mechanisms in the brain and how much patients should practice neurobics to reap the full benefits.