Visits to the ICU can cause significant cognitive issues in seniors

Avoiding trips to the intensive care unit is undoubtedly a critical component of senior living, and results of a recent study suggest that the negative impact of time spent in the ICU may be more far-reaching than originally thought. Researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., found that critically ill patients who spend days in the ICU go on to experience thinking and memory problems even if they have fully recovered from their physical maladies, according to findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Delirium plays a role
To measure the impact ICU visits have on the brains of older adults, researchers looked at more than 820 patients who were admitted with either respiratory failure, cardiogenic shock or sepsis. The team found that after three months, approximately 26 percent of these individuals experienced cognitive impairment that was similar to symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, 40 percent had symptoms more in line with concussion patients. These symptoms persisted for up to a year after their hospital stay. Experts say the culprit is likely a condition known as delirium, which is caused when brain dysfunction leads to confusion and decreased levels of consciousness.

“A number of studies have shown in recent years that delirium is not an innocent bystander of ICU care but is a real issue associated with worse outcomes, longer time in the ICU, on ventilation, even a predictor of mortality,” said Dr. Pratik Pandharipande, the study’s lead author. “And now, if you survive, it’s a predictor of cognitive impairment.”

Post-hospital care
In addition to highlighting the importance of taking steps to limit trips to the ICU, the study also shows how crucial post-hospital care can be. Whether it is a temporary stay in a senior’s residence or other in-home supports, making sure there is a smooth transition from the hospital to the home can have a significant impact.

There are a number of steps that both caregivers and seniors can take to make sure they have a successful transition from the hospital. However, one of the most important things is to have written discharge plan, according to This document includes everything from a list of medications and any assistive equipment to a schedule of follow-up appointments to ensure there are no return trips to the hospital.