Frailty for Perioperative Clinicians: A Narrative Review

Anesth Analg. 2020 Jun;130(6):1450-1460. doi: 10.1213/ANE.0000000000004602.


Frailty is a multidimensional syndrome characterized by decreased reserve and diminished resistance to stressors. People with frailty are vulnerable to stressors, and exposure to the stress of surgery is associated with increased risk of adverse outcomes and higher levels of resource use. As Western populations age rapidly, older people with frailty are presenting for surgery with increasing frequency. This means that anesthesiologists and other perioperative clinicians need to be familiar with frailty, its assessment, manifestations, and strategies for optimization. We present a narrative review of frailty aimed at perioperative clinicians. The review will familiarize readers with the concept of frailty, will discuss common and feasible approaches to frailty assessment before surgery, and will describe the relative and absolute associations of frailty with commonly measured adverse outcomes, including morbidity and mortality, as well as patient-centered and reported outcomes related to function, disability, and quality of life. A proposed approach to optimization before surgery is presented, which includes frailty assessment followed by recommendations for identification of underlying physical disability, malnutrition, cognitive dysfunction, and mental health diagnoses. Overall, 30%-50% of older patients presenting for major surgery will be living with frailty, which results in a more than 2-fold increase in risk of morbidity, mortality, and development of new patient-reported disability. The Clinical Frailty Scale appears to be the most feasible frailty instrument for use before surgery; however, evidence suggests that predictive accuracy does not differ significantly between frailty instruments such as the Fried Phenotype, Edmonton Frail Scale, and Frailty Index. Identification of physical dysfunction may allow for optimization via exercise prehabilitation, while nutritional supplementation could be considered with a positive screen for malnutrition. The Hospital Elder Life Program shows promise for delirium prevention, while individuals with mental health and or other psychosocial stressors may derive particular benefit from multidisciplinary care and preadmission discharge planning. Robust trials are still required to provide definitive evidence supporting these interventions and minimal data are available to guide management during the intra- and postoperative phases. Improving the care and outcomes of older people with frailty represents a key opportunity for anesthesiologists and perioperative scientists.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging
  • Anesthesiology / methods*
  • Anesthesiology / standards
  • Delirium / prevention & control
  • Frailty / complications
  • Frailty / physiopathology
  • Frailty / psychology
  • Frailty / surgery*
  • Humans
  • Patient-Centered Care
  • Perioperative Period*
  • Quality of Life
  • Severity of Illness Index