BACKGROUND: Impaired functional and cognitive status is an important outcome for older adults undergoing major cardiac surgery. We conducted this pilot study to gauge feasibility of assessing these outcomes longitudinally, from preoperatively up to two time points postoperatively to assess for recovery. METHODS: We interviewed patients aged >/= 65 y preoperatively and repeated functional and cognitive assessments at 4-6 wk and 4-6 mo postoperatively. Simple unadjusted linear regression was used to test whether baseline measures changed at each follow-up time point. Then we used a longitudinal model to predict postoperative recovery overall, adjusting for comorbidity. RESULTS: A total of 62 patients (age 74.7 +/- 5.9) underwent scheduled cardiac surgery. Preoperative activities of daily living (ADL) impairment was associated with poorer functional recovery at 4-6 wk postoperatively with each baseline ADL impairment conferring recovery of 0.5 fewer ADLs (P < 0.05). By 4-6 mo, we could no longer detect a difference in recovery. Preoperative cognition and physical activity were not associated with postoperative changes in these domains. CONCLUSIONS: A preoperative and postoperative evaluation of function and cognition was integrated into the surgical care of older patients. Preoperative impairments in ADLs may be a means to identify patients who might benefit from careful postoperative planning, especially in terms of assistance with self-care during the first 4-6 wk after cardiac surgery.