Risk stratification is a critical element of surgical planning. Early tools were fairly crude, while newer instruments incorporate disease-specific elements and markers of frailty. It is unknown if discrepancies between chronological and cellular age can guide surgical planning or treatment. Telomeres are DNA-protein complexes that serve an important role in protecting genomic DNA. Their shortening is a consequence of aging and environmental exposures, with well-established associations with diseases of aging and mortality. There are compelling data to suggest that telomere length can provide insight toward overall health. The authors sought to determine potential associations between telomere length and postoperative complications.
Adults undergoing elective surgery for spinal deformity were prospectively enrolled. Telomere length was measured from preoperative whole blood using quantitative polymerase chain reaction and expressed as the ratio of telomere (T) to single-copy gene (S) abundance (T/S ratio), with higher T/S ratios indicating longer telomere length. Demographic and patient data included age, BMI, and results for the following rating scales: the Adult Spinal Deformity Frailty Index (ASD-FI), Oswestry Disability Index (ODI), Scoliosis Research Society-22r (SRS-22r), American Society of Anesthesiology (ASA) classification, and Charlson Comorbidity Index (CCI). Operative and postoperative complication data (medical or surgical within 90 days) were also collected.
Forty-three patients were enrolled, including 31 women (53%), with a mean age of 66 years and a mean BMI of 28.5. The mean number of levels fused was 11, with 21 (48.8%) combined anterior-posterior approaches. Twenty-two patients (51.2%) had a medical or surgical complication. Patients with a postoperative complication had a significantly lower T/S ratio (0.712 vs 0.813, p = 0.008), indicating shorter telomere length, despite a mild difference in age compared with patients without a postoperative complication (68 vs 63 years, p = 0.069). Patients with complications also had higher CCI scores than patients without complications (2.3 vs 3.8, p = 0.004). There were no significant differences in sex, BMI, ASD-FI score, ASA class, preoperative ODI and SRS-22r scores, number of levels fused, or use of three-column osteotomies. In a multivariate model including age, frailty, ASA class, use of an anterior-posterior approach, CCI score, and telomere length, the authors found that short telomere length was significantly associated with postoperative complications. Patients whose telomere length fell in the shortest quartile had the highest risk (OR 18.184, p = 0.030).
Short telomere length was associated with an increased risk of postoperative complications despite only a mild difference in chronological age. Increasing comorbidity scores also trended toward significance. Larger prospective studies are needed; however, these data provide a compelling impetus to investigate the role of biological aging as a component of surgical risk stratification.