- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2005

CHICAGO (AP) — Vito Buffalo didn’t let his age stand in the way of open-spine surgery to relieve his back pain. The 73-year-old retired butcher from Wauconda, Ill., said he needs to feel good because he leads an 18-piece swing band.

“I’m a singer, and there are a lot of songs I have not yet sung,” he said, explaining his decision to try surgery.

Active senior citizens such as Mr. Buffalo are choosing — sometimes demanding — surgery that once would have seemed extreme for older patients. Healthier older people and medical advances make it possible for surgeons to say yes to those demands.

“Obviously, we turn some patients away, but that group is getting smaller and smaller,” said Dr. Dean Karahalios, the Chicago neurosurgeon who did Mr. Buffalo’s surgery.

Surgical advances mean quicker recovery. Dr. Richard Berger of Rush University Medical Center has been doing outpatient hip and knee replacements with small incisions and epidural anesthesia for several years.

Now he’s teaching the procedures to other surgeons and predicts that the technique will be done on an outpatient basis across the country in five to 10 years. He’s even done these surgeries on patients in their 90s.

“Age is not such an issue anymore,” he said.

In the past, research on surgery excluded patients older than 75, so there was little evidence on risks and benefits for older people.

But with life expectancy increasing and the baby boomers looking forward to retirement, researchers are giving the elderly a close look.

One study found that people 76 and older recovered more slowly than younger patients after heart bypass surgery. But one year later, the improvements they felt in pain relief and quality of life were the same as in younger patients.

“That was very encouraging and gave us confidence,” said Dr. John Spertus, professor of medicine at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, a researcher on the bypass study. Heart doctors are treating more patients who are older and they need guidance on how to counsel those patients, he said.

Doctors should tell older patients to expect their recovery from bypass to take a full year, he said, but they can tell them to expect good results.

The older-than-65 crowd accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. population, but undergoes 40 percent of surgeries, said Dr. John Burton, who directs the Geriatrics for Specialists Initiative of the American Geriatrics Society.

As the nation ages, surgeons will find more of their time spent treating older patients, he said. “It’s where the action is.”

Mr. Buffalo said he’s free of the excruciating back pain that had slowed him down. He said the pain from surgery and the hard work of physical therapy are worth the results.

“I don’t care if I have one year left, or three or six,” he said. “I want to be able to go and see my grandkids.”

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