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Study: Surgery Before Age 3 Could Lead to Language Disabilities Later

When my daughter received anesthesia for eye surgery at age 3 about nine years ago, I was unaware of the possible risks to her developing brain. I was more worried about the surgery itself, which corrected a problem that could have damaged her ability to see as she grew older.

Now, nine years later, a new study suggests that the use of anesthesia on kids under age 3 could have an impact on their language and abstract reasoning abilities at age 10.

Researchers at Columbia University, who conducted the study, stress that the minor changes exhibited by kids exposed to anesthesia before age 3 shouldn't encourage parents to postpone necessary surgeries, but to consider possible alternatives to anesthesia if possible, according to published reports.

In fact, the researchers say they can't be sure that the effects on brain development are due to the anesthesia or the medical issue that required surgery, or even the surgery itself, although previous studies involving lab rats did show a correlation between exposure to anesthesia and brain development.

For this study, researchers assessed more than 2,600 Australian kids born between 1989 and 1992. Of those children, 321 had been exposed to anesthesia before age 3. The study found that exposed kids had lower scores in receptive and expressive language and cognition at age 10, suggesting an increased risk for disabilities—even with a single exposure to anesthesia—than that for children who were not exposed to anesthesia.

The study was published in the journal Pediatrics.

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