Repeated anesthesia in kids tied to learning disabilities

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(CBS) Anytime a young child goes in for surgery, parents have plenty of reasons to worry. But a new study adds another potential cause of concern: learning disabilities - from too much anesthesia.

A new study shows kids who were exposed more than once to anesthesia and surgery prior to age 2 were three times as likely to develop speech and language problems when compared to children who never had surgeries at that young age.

For the FDA-sponsored study - published in the October 3 issue of Pediatrics - Mayo Clinic researchers looked at records for 1,050 kids born in Rochester, Minn. between 1976 and 1982. The researchers compared the rate of learning disabilities among 350 children who had undergone surgery with general anesthesia before their second birthday - including 64 kids who had more than one procedure - to that of 700 children who did not have any surgeries with anesthesia.

Almost 37 percent of kids who had multiple surgeries before age 2 developed a learning disability, compared to 24 percent who had one surgery. Twenty-one percent of children who had never had surgery had a learning disability. The study's author said that a single surgery was not statistically shown to be dangerous.

"A single exposure to anesthesia in surgery has not been shown to be problem, so parents can be reassured that this is not likely to cause any problems," study author Dr. Randall Flick, pediatric anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic, told HealthDay.

What should parents do if their child is set to go under the knife?

"Our advice to parents considering surgery for a child under age 2 is to speak with your child's physician," Dr. Flick said in a written statement. "We do not yet have sufficient information to prompt a change in practice and want to avoid problems that may occur as a result of delaying needed procedures."

For example, delaying ear surgery for a child with chronic ear infections might cause hearing difficulties that could also create learning problems at school, Flick said.

Dr. Lynne G. Maxwell, pediatric anesthesiologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, agreed. She told HealthDay that kids who require multiple surgeries before age 2 usually have serious health problems.

Said Maxwell, "I would hate to have parents who are already worried about a child to feel that they should choose not to have a surgery because of the possible risk of developmental problems."

More than four million children undergo anesthesia each year.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on anesthesia for children's surgery.