Am I Too Old for Joint Replacement?

Factors That May Affect Your Eligibility

Joint replacement surgery is a common treatment for severe osteoarthritis. Hip replacement and knee replacement are the most frequently performed of these surgeries and are most often done in people between the ages of 55 and 80.

There has long been a popular conceit that older age automatically excludes people over 80 from joint replacement surgery due to everything from anesthesia complications to the fragility of older bones. But is any of this true, or are there ages when having a joint replacement is unadvised?

African American doctor talking to patient in office.
 John Fedele/Getty Images

Factors Considered by Surgeons

As a rule, age alone is never a contradiction for any surgery, including a joint replacement. Healthcare providers are far more interested in the overall health of an individual rather than the chronological age. Because of this, a younger person might be considered unfit for certain operations, while an elderly person may breeze through the evaluation without a problem.

When performing an eligibility assessment, an orthopedic surgeon will focus on three key things:

  • Your current health status is the primary criteria for inclusion. This not only involves a physical examination, blood tests, and imaging scans but a review of your medical history and any acute or chronic health conditions you may have.
  • Your physical strength will also need to be evaluated to ensure you can undergo the rehabilitation process. In order to do this, the healthcare provider will need to see if the patient has the strength to lift himself or herself, use a walker or other mobility device, and fully participate in physical therapy.
  • Your cognitive function will also be evaluated to ensure you have the capacity to see the process through and prevent any harm to yourself or your implant. This is especially important for hip replacement surgery, in which special precautions are needed to protect the hip.

Factors That May Exclude You

While age alone won't exclude you from surgery, other factors—including some aging-related factors—may. Among some of the more common red flags surgeons watch out for:

  • Severe osteoporosis may make it impossible to perform the surgery because the bones may be too brittle to support the new joint prosthetic. While mild to moderate osteoporosis is not a contraindication, it may affect how a surgeon performs the surgery.
  • An existing infection can also exclude you from surgery, at least until such time as the infection is fully healed and confirmed to be resolved.
  • Cigarettes won't outright exclude you, but may factor in if you are on the borderline for eligibility. Research suggests, among other things, that smokers are 10 times more likely to need a revision surgery than a non-smoker.
  • Obesity is also not a direct contraindication, but may factor into your assessment. If your weight makes it impossible for you to lift yourself, for example, you may not have the means to participate in physical therapy.
  • Alcoholism, substance abuse, or mental illness can also make it difficult for a surgeon to sign off unless there is some form of established treatment to ensure you'll adhere to rehabilitation and avoid falls in order to optimize your outcome after surgery.

Strangely enough, the one aging-related factor that may make you ineligible is younger age. Because joint prostheses have a limited lifespan, healthcare providers will often delay surgery for younger people for as long as possible to ensure that the joint can last for the rest of that person's life.

Questions to Consider

If you are older and believe that you need a joint replacement, take the time to consider whether now is the right time and if you are willing to fully commit to your post-operative rehabilitation. Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Is your pain severely impacting your quality of life and keeping you from doing everyday tasks such as shopping, driving, or cleaning the house?
  • Does the pain prevent you from getting enough sleep at night, or interfere with your ability to walk, stand, sit, or navigate stairs?
  • If you smoke, are you willing to quit to improve your rehabilitation?
  • Are you willing to seek treatment if you are an alcoholic or have a substance abuse problem (including prescription drug abuse)?
  • Are you willing to exercise and lose weight, if needed, to better ensure your recovery?
  • Do you have someone who can assist you during rehabilitation or the means to access the necessary nursing home or home healthcare services?

If you answer "no" to any of these questions, speak with your healthcare provider and have a heart-to-heart about whether a joint replacement is the right option or if there are other avenues of treatment you can explore.

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Article Sources
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