Is 80 too old for major surgery? Increasingly, the answer's no

Sacramento BeeJanuary 18, 2009 

At 82, retired Roseville engineer Leonard Thompson is out to show he still has a few good years left.

Years? What's this bunk about mere years, sonny?

More like decades. Why the heck not?

Thompson, after all, exercises body and mind daily, even developing his own workout program for seniors that emphasizes stretching, deep breathing, light aerobics and modified sit-ups and push-ups. And, six months ago, he recovered from invasive bladder and prostate cancer surgery quicker than some patients half his age.

"He is a fairly remarkable individual," says Thompson's urologist, Dr. Ralph deVere White, director of the UC Davis Cancer Center.

Remarkable, yes. But not an anomaly.

Doctors, who traditionally have been hesitant to perform major surgery on patients aged 80 or older, are beginning to revise the standard of care. More and more, patients inching toward the century mark are undergoing cancer operations, open-heart surgery and joint replacements at an age when previously they might have been told to take it easy and let nature take its course.

Credit improvements in medical technology, coupled with a fast-growing aging population skewing healthier than previous generations, for the shift.

But such advances have not arrived without controversy.

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