Delirium is a postoperative complication that occurs frequently in patients older than 65 years, and presages adverse outcomes. We investigated whether prophylactic low-dose dexmedetomidine, a highly selective α2 adrenoceptor agonist, could safely decrease the incidence of delirium in elderly patients after non-cardiac surgery.We did this randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in two tertiary-care hospitals in Beijing, China. We enrolled patients aged 65 years or older, who were admitted to intensive care units after non-cardiac surgery, with informed consent. We used a computer-generated randomisation sequence (in a 1:1 ratio) to randomly assign patients to receive either intravenous dexmedetomidine (0·1 μg/kg per h, from intensive care unit admission on the day of surgery until 0800 h on postoperative day 1), or placebo (intravenous normal saline). Participants, care providers, and investigators were all masked to group assignment. The primary endpoint was the incidence of delirium, assessed twice daily with the Confusion Assessment Method for intensive care units during the first 7 postoperative days. Analyses were done by intention-to-treat and safety populations. This study is registered with Chinese Clinical Trial Registry, www.chictr.org.cn, number ChiCTR-TRC-10000802.Between Aug 17, 2011, and Nov 20, 2013, of 2016 patients assessed, 700 were randomly assigned to receive either placebo (n=350) or dexmedetomidine (n=350). The incidence of postoperative delirium was significantly lower in the dexmedetomidine group (32 [9%] of 350 patients) than in the placebo group (79 [23%] of 350 patients; odds ratio [OR] 0·35, 95% CI 0·22-0·54; p<0·0001). Regarding safety, the incidence of hypertension was higher with placebo (62 [18%] of 350 patients) than with dexmedetomidine (34 [10%] of 350 patients; 0·50, 0·32-0·78; p=0·002). Tachycardia was also higher in patients given placebo (48 [14%] of 350 patients) than in patients given dexmedetomidine (23 [7%] of 350 patients; 0·44, 0·26-0·75; p=0·002). Occurrence of hypotension and bradycardia did not differ between groups.For patients aged over 65 years who are admitted to the intensive care unit after non-cardiac surgery, prophylactic low-dose dexmedetomidine significantly decreases the occurrence of delirium during the first 7 days after surgery. The therapy is safe.Braun Anaesthesia Scientific Research Fund and Wu Jieping Medical Foundation, Beijing, China. Study drugs were manufactured and supplied by Jiangsu Hengrui Medicine Co, Ltd, Jiangsu, China.