Elderly patients frequently present with surgical emergencies to health care providers, and outcomes in this group of patients remain poor. Contributing factors include frailty, preexisting comorbidity, polypharmacy, delayed diagnosis, and lack of timely and consultant-led treatment. In this review, we address common emergency surgical presentations in the elderly and highlight the specific challenges in caring for these patients. We summarize 20 years of reports by various medical bodies that have aimed to improve the care of these patients. To improve morbidity and mortality, several aspects of care need to be addressed. These include accurate and timely preoperative assessment to identify treatable pathology and, where possible, to consider and correct age-specific disease processes. Identification of patients in whom treatment would be futile or associated with high risk is needed to avoid unnecessary interventions and to give patients and carers realistic expectations. The use of multidisciplinary teams to identify common postoperative complications and age-specific syndromes is paramount. Prevention of complications is preferable to rescue treatment due to the high proportion of patients who fail to recover from adverse events. Even with successful surgical treatment, long-term functional decline and increased dependency are common. More research into emergency surgery in the elderly is needed to improve care for this growing group of vulnerable patients.
Keywords: elderly care; emergency surgery; frailty; risk assessment.