April 27th, 2012 at 12:10 pm
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Elder hospitalizations can lead to a decrease in cognitive function

by Dorian Martin

I recently visited a friend whose mother-in-law was placed in a wound treatment facility. While the medical staff focused on treating the wound, my friend was increasingly worried about her mother-in-law’s mental state. For instance, the mother-in-law called 911 several times while at the facility because she was confused about where she was. She also experienced paranoia and may have had hallucinations.

I saw some similar reactions with my own mother when she was hospitalized. I found Mom to be very wary, not sure what was going on around her. Furthermore, she experienced some mental decline when she was released from the hospital, although she generally rebounded.

Hospitalizations, elders and cognitive function

The experiences of my friend’s mother-in-law and my mother are not unusual. In his paper “Hospitalization and Effects on Cognition” published in the 2012 issue of Neurology, Dr. Kenneth Rockwood noted that older people who were hospitalized experienced more of a decline in their thinking, memory, language and judgment than people of a similar age who were not hospitalized. He pointed to a nine-year study of 1,870 people, most in their 70s, that focused on the cognitive abilities of study participants who were hospitalized and those who weren’t.

The researchers had four findings:

  1. Participants’ cognitive abilities worsened a bit during the study period, whether they were hospitalized or not.
  2. More than two-thirds of participants were hospitalized at least once during the duration of the research project. “Interestingly, right at the outset, the people who would eventually wind up being in the hospital at least once did very slightly worse on most tests compared to the people who never went to the hospital,” Dr. Rockwood noted.
  3. Study participants’ cognitive abilities generally declined faster after going into the hospital. Participants who were not hospitalized didn’t experience as steep a decline.
  4. The cognitive changes among study participants who were hospitalized weren’t uniform. Some elders’ function markedly decreased while others displayed only minor cognitive issues. And some study participants actually showed improvement mentally.

Based on my experiences with my mother, I’d suggest caregivers talk to the hospital medical team about any changes in an elder’s memory, thinking, language and judgment during hospitalization. Also, alert the elder’s primary care physician and other pertinent health care staff (such as those in the elder’s retirement facility) about the changes in cognition once the elder is discharged from the hospital. While some medications can ease memory loss, hallucinations and paranoia, the elder may still experience mental decline so caregivers need to be ready to accept those changes.

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2 Comments to “Elder hospitalizations can lead to a decrease in cognitive function”

  1. Doctors today want to have a patient hospitalized too many times. I have refused twice to go to a hospital for a lung infection. I feel strongly that if you follow the doctor’s order completely and take medicines etc, you can recover faster in your own home. I also have most of what they would give me at the hospital. Oxygen, nebulizer inhalers. I also have neighbors who would check on me. AS long as I wasn’t in duress with not able to breathe at all, I felt able to care for myself. Hospitals also have a lot of germs that can add to your problems. Feeling at ease and comfortable and relaxed is also important to recovery. A Hospital environment does not do that for me. If I had a problem that I knew for sure would require being in a hospital, like broken bones, heart attack etc, of course I would go there. But for other problems that can be rectified in my own home there is no need for that. And I am mentally competent to render my own decisions.

  2. Maybe it’s the under stimulating environment of a hospital that causes the issues. Kind of like how insane asylums will make a sane person insane?

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