Although knee replacement surgery may seem like a procedure with age limitations, a recent study has proven the procedure safe and effective even for patients in their 80s.

The prominent message conveyed by a recent study of more than 1.7 million older adults who had undergone knee replacement surgery is that the surgery is not as risky or perilous as it is often perceived. Indeed, knee replacement surgery has become increasingly common among individuals over the age of 80 who have had to curtail activities due to knee pain.

Age is just a number, according to Thomas Fleeter, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon in Fairfax, VA, who was not involved in the study. His oldest knee replacement patient was 96. “Nobody wants to live in pain, and one of the greatest fears of elderly people is being dependent,” Fleeter said. He explained that older adults want to go to the grocery store, see their grandchildren, travel, garden and live their lives to the fullest. For many of these people, knee replacement surgery can help to achieve those goals.

The study was conducted by Priscilla Varghese, BS, at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY during a summer research program. The study findings could change the way older adults are counseled about the risks and benefits of knee replacement surgery, according to Varghese. “Knee replacement surgery carries a very low risk for people aged 80 and older, and they will likely have a substantial, if not complete, reduction of pain after surgery,” she said.

The study involved researchers who analyzed medical claims data on more than 1.7 million people aged 65 and older who underwent knee replacement surgery. They compared complication rates among people aged 80 and older with those experienced by patients aged 65 to 79. Results indicated that rates of readmission and length of hospital stay were higher and longer among octogenarians. Both age groups had similar risks for medical complications such as pneumonia and other infections in the 90 days following their surgeries.

Patients aged 80 and over had lower rates of implant-related complications, such as erosion infection, implant failure and mechanical loosening, than did their younger counterparts after two years. Varghese noted that such findings make sense. “The younger group of patients may be more active so they have a higher risk of wear and tear on the hardware,” she said.

“We are seeing an increase in life expectancy, and more people want to sustain a good quality of life and activity, so patients older and older are considering knee replacement as a way to overcome chronic knee pain,” Varghese said. She added that surgery isn’t the only option for older patients experiencing chronic knee pain. Other treatments such as weight loss or steroid injections may be helpful, but knee pain usually doesn’t get better without intervention, she said.