By Alison Bruzek
The patient was an older man, living at a nursing facility. He’d originally been admitted to the hospital for surgery to treat a urinary tract infection. But now, lying in his bed at the hospital after the operation, he was convinced that two people were standing outside his room and planning to blow it up.
“We could tell this person was delirious,” says Dr. Eyal Kimchi, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital
Delirium is a complicated syndrome, most common among the hospitalized elderly where it’s estimated 29 to 64 percent of patients have it. However, it’s underreported and researchers estimate as many as two-thirds of cases go undiagnosed.
While usually temporary, it leaves people feeling severely confused. Their brains switch rapidly between mental states, increasing their risk of falling and later brain problems like dementia.
Though the patient’s mind was muddled, the idea of an explosion hadn’t appeared to him out of the blue — he was at the hospital around the time of the Boston Marathon bombing. What had likely happened, says Kimchi, is the patient had begun misattributing the news reports he saw playing on the television to actual life.
And even though that patient fully recovered, some of those delirious thoughts remained. “Ultimately this person said, ‘I know I’m better, I know I was confused, but I also know they were trying to blow up the place,’ ” says Kimchi.
People with delirium can often run the gamut of states, from hyperactive and aggressive to withdrawn and nearly comatose. The causes are not well understood but it’s a combination of a person’s predisposition to delirium as well as an event that sets it off, says Kimchi. These could be “surgery, infections, other sorts of brain injuries like trauma,” he says. “It’s still very hard to predict on an individual basis.”
While there’s not a lot of research on the predictors of delirium, there are ways to prevent it, according to a study released this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine.
Prevention may be as simple as reminders and attentive care, says, Dr. Tammy Hshieh, a researcher of aging and geriatrics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and author of the JAMA study. She suggests preventative measures like reorienting patients to where they are, keeping them hydrated and healthy, and ensuring they have hearing aids or glasses or other physical assistance is an effective method to stop delirium. Continue reading