Older patients who experience delirium while in hospital may subsequently be at greater risk of developing dementia, according to UK researchers.
The researchers, from University College London and Cambridge University, noted that acute confusion and disorientation affected a quarter of older patients while in hospital.
“It requires everyone to ‘think delirium’ and identify that a patient’s brain function has changed”
But they also warned, that based on their findings, it may have long-lasting consequences, including accelerating the dementia process.
They believe their study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, is the first to show the multiplying effects of delirium and dementia in these patients.
Episodes of delirium in people who are not known to have dementia, might also reveal dementia at its earliest stages, the study suggests.
The study authors highlighted that delirium was both preventable and treatable through dedicated geriatric care.
The researchers looked at three European populations – in Finland, Cambridge and UK-wide – and examined brain specimens in 987 people aged 65 and older.
“Future research should look at the long term impact of delirium on the brain”
Each person’s memory, thinking and experience of delirium had been recorded over 10 years towards the end of their life.
When these were linked with pathology abnormalities due to Alzheimer’s and other dementias, those with both delirium and dementia-changes had the most severe change in memory.
Dr Daniel Davis, who led the research, said: “Unfortunately, most delirium goes unrecognised. In busy hospitals, a sudden change in confusion not be noticed by hospital staff.
“Patients can be transferred several times and staff often switch over – it requires everyone to ‘think delirium’ and identify that a patient’s brain function has changed,” he said.
He added: “If delirium is causing brain injury in the short and long-term, then we must increase our efforts to diagnose, prevent and treat delirium.
“Ultimately, targeting delirium could be a chance to delay or reduce dementia,” said Dr Davis.
Dr Clare Walton, research manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “This study suggests that delirium is not just a result of dementia-related changes in the brain but might independently cause problems with cognition.
“We don’t understand why yet, but future research should look at the long term impact of delirium on the brain,” she said.
“We often hear of people who have developed memory and thinking problems or dementia after a stay in hospital. Understanding how delirium is involved and whether it can be prevented or treated is a pressing issue,” she added.