Extended ICU Stays Can Cause Dementia

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerOctober 9, 2013

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.

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. 

Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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