Delirium occurs commonly following major non-cardiac and cardiac surgery and is associated with: postoperative mortality; postoperative neurocognitive dysfunction; increased length of hospital stay; and major postoperative complications and morbidity. The aim of this study was to investigate the effect of peri-operative administration of dexmedetomidine on the incidence of postoperative delirium in non-cardiac and cardiac surgical patients. In this randomised, double-blind placebo-controlled trial we included 63 patients aged >= 60 years undergoing major open abdominal surgery or coronary artery bypass graft surgery with cardiopulmonary bypass. The primary outcome was the incidence of postoperative delirium, as screened for with the Confusion Assessment Method. Delirium assessment was performed twice daily until postoperative day 5, at the time of discharge from hospital or until postoperative day 14. We found that dexmedetomidine was associated with a reduced incidence of postoperative delirium within the first 5 postoperative days, 43.8% vs. 17.9%, p = 0.038. Severity of delirium, screened with the Intensive Care Delirium Screening Checklist, was comparable in both groups, with a mean maximum score of 1.54 vs. 1.68, p = 0.767. No patients in the dexmedetomidine group died while five (15.6%) patients in the placebo group died, p = 0.029. For patients aged >= 60 years undergoing major cardiac or non-cardiac surgery, we conclude that the peri-operative administration of dexmedetomidine is associated with a lower incidence of postoperative delirium.