Extended ICU Stays Can Cause Dementia

Being admitted to an intensive care unit can be a traumatic experience, but when it causes dementia, the results can be devastating. A recent study by Vanderbilt University shows that 75% of patients discharged from intensive care units exhibit signs of dementia, regardless of age. Of those patients, one in three exhibited symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s Disease.

Extended ICU Stays Can Cause Dementia

According to CBS News, Lisa Uribe underwent routine surgery that resulted in an infection and landed her in the ICU for three weeks. The effects of her ICU stay are still with her, 18 months later. She struggles with short term memory loss and cognitive impairment that keeps her from working. Researchers at Vanderbilt University set out to discover why and how patients like Lisa are being affected during an ICU stay. Published in the New England Journal of Medicine on October 2, the study found that patients in intensive care units are at high risk for long term cognitive impairment.

The Science Behind The Research

The study included approximately 800 patients and tracked their cognitive development for about a year. The team of researchers at Vanderbilt University admit the results of their study are dramatic, but not unexpected.  Dr. E.W. Ely,  Associate Director of Aging Research at Vanderbilt and key member of the research team, said the researchers were less concerned with numbers and more concerned with raising awareness about the issue.

The highlights and findings of the study are:

  • Over 800 people were monitored for signs of dementia in a one year period after leaving the ICU.
  • Of those 800 people, 75% exhibited lasting symptoms of dementia and 1 in 3 exhibited symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • Younger patients exhibit the same symptoms as older patients.
  • The study found that dementia symptoms may be caused by sedation drugs or by critical illness.

What Are The Next Steps?

While the study tracked patients for one year, researchers are continuing to look at the participants and plan to track them for at least four years. While those results have not been published yet, the existing results should give medical personnel and patients more insight into preventing memory loss in an ICU stay. In the meantime, ICUs across the country are focusing on lighter sedation options, increasing patient awareness of night and day, and getting patients both mentally and physically active as soon as possible.

What This Means for You

There is no question that the findings of this study shows a valid public health concern. With the majority of patients leaving the ICU with signs of dementia, the ICU experience needs to change. Advocate for lighter sedation when possible, play brain boosting games, and increase awareness of day and night. Being aware of the issue means that caregivers can help patients remain mentally active in the ICU and also help fight a false diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Do you have any experience with dementia caused by an ICU stay? Share your story with us in the comments below. 

Please leave your thoughts and comments

  • Ann Napoletan

    My dad developed ICU psychosis after heart surgery almost five years ago; one of the most strange and frightening things I’ve ever experienced. To this day, he has no recollection of it. With my mom in the throes of Alzheimer’s at the time and him living in a different state, I was terrified that his condition would be permanent; but thankfully, today he is absolutely fine.

    • Alissa

      Ann, thanks for sharing! I am so glad to hear he came out of it. That must have been so scary.

  • k

    Finally an explanation for what I am going through. 33 years old and spent 12 days in the ICU after surgery 1 year ago. I run a business working with the elderly population and some days feel inadequate doing the work because of my now poor memory and feel I’m more of a client then a business owner. When I woke up from a coma the focus was on just me being alive and not on repairing my memory. I was at one of the best hospitals in the US and doctors/nurses asked me to complete a survey that is normally given to family members that have a loved one in a coma. I remember thinking “i’m alive and don’t recognize my 10 year old daughter and this is the best questions you can ask me?” I had to learn how to walk, how to use the bathroom, how to speak and even how to breath without a machine doing it for me. But no focus on who I was before and the life I lived. My family is very supportive so now, I know my child and have some memories of her and family but it took a very long time and all chalked up to short term memory loss. Don’t think so. What I know now is from what my family fought for me to know. and I forget daily tasks that I was told used to be important. I would love more research on this topic and have NIH looking into studies on this…if the government shutdown ever ends.

  • Rachel P

    I was cicu for 16 days. I knew that my mind was normal. I felt dumb and forgetful. I still forget day to day things. I’m only 38.

    • Rachel P

      Wasn’t normal…. Sorry

  • Carol’s Daughter

    My mother was in the ICU for 21 days following a 12 hour lumbar and thoracic surgery. She was awake but in a state of catatonia, and left the ICU and into rehab. Went from rehab to home. Was admitted into a SNF 1 month later at the age of 67. She died 1 month ago, at the age of 70. Her main cause of death, on her death certificate is “Advanced Dementia”.
    Now, She was watching my small children 2 months before her surgery, just fine, and attended Christmas Eve and Christmas day at my house. On News Years day 2010, she called me to come get her and I brought her to the ER, where she was seen to have 2 broken vertebrae. She never really left the hospital ever again, except the brief time home after rehab.

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