Early Anesthesia Linked to Learning Disabilities in Children

Receiving anesthesia early in life has been linked to learning disabilities in children later in life, according to an emerging study. The study appears in the journal Pediatrics and was conducted by Mayo Clinic researchers.

According to the study, when infants or toddlers need to undergo surgery and must be anesthetized, they could experience increases risks for learning disabilities later in their lives, wrote the Huffington Post. The study looked at children who received general anesthesia prior to age two and the three-fold risk for learning issues, said The Huffington Post. The risk, said HealthDay, does appear to apply to small children who have undergone multiple procedures.

“A single exposure to anesthesia in surgery has not been shown to be [a] problem, so parents can be reassured that this is not likely to cause any problems,” study researcher Dr. Randall Flick, of the Mayo Clinic, told HealthDay, wrote The Huffington Post.

The research team looked at the health information of 350 children who, when they were under the age of two, underwent surgery and received anesthesia and also looked at the data on 700 children who never underwent a surgical procedure requiring anesthesia under the age of two, said The Huffington Post. All of the children were born between 1976 and 1983.

The team found that 21.3% of 19-year-olds suffered from a learning disability and that 23.6% of those exposed only once to anesthesia prior to the age of two suffered from a learning disability, said The Huffington Post. Meanwhile, nearly 37% percent of those exposed to anesthesia more than once before the age of two, were diagnosed with a learning disability, said The Huffington Post, citing the Mayo Clinic study.

CNN pointed out that the researchers noted that it remains unclear if pre-existing issues necessitating surgery played a part and HealthDay noted that anesthesia today is administered and monitored differently than in the 1970s-80s.

According to WebMD, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioned and funded the study after it met in 2010 to review evidence concerning the effects of anesthesia on the brain. FDA director of anesthesia and analgesia products did call for more data prior to coming to any “firm conclusions,” said WebMD. Regardless, according to previous studies, anesthesia has been linked to learning disabilities, said NPR, which noted that children who underwent more than one surgery before the age of four have an increased risk of developing learning disabilities.

This is not the first time we’ve written about anesthesia and adverse health effects. Earlier this year we wrote that a then-emerging study found that nitrous oxide and general anesthesia during surgery increases heart attack risks; side effects are long term. That study, released by the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia, appeared in the February issue of Anesthesia and Analgesia, the official journal of the International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS).

A prior ENGIMA trial involving 2,050 patients who underwent noncardiac surgery were randomly assigned to receive anesthesia with or without nitrous oxide. That study revealed an “unexpectedly high number” of heart attacks in patients who received nitrous oxide.

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