About half of adults 65 and older who are admitted to the hospital find themselves in an unforeseen state of confusion during their stay. Sometimes the change is mild and temporary; other times the effects are more severe and can have a lasting impact on brain health.
It's called delirium, and according to a new report from the AARP-founded Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), it's “the most common surgical complication for older adults you likely have never even heard of.” In fact, a recent AARP survey on delirium and brain health of adults 50 and older found that 74 percent of respondents were not familiar with the condition.
A frequent and frightening reality
Simply put, delirium is a sudden change in thinking and behavior that is often brought on after an injury, illness, infection or surgery — although “it can be triggered by almost anything,” explains geriatrician Sharon Inouye, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Aging Brain Center at the Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research, Hebrew SeniorLife, in Boston.
And it can show up in many different ways, which makes delirium difficult to diagnose. A patient, for example, may appear drowsy or “just not themselves” during a hospital stay. They may not know “where they are; they may think they're at home,” says Inouye, a contributor to the GCBH report. “They may not recognize people — even familiar people, even family members. They may not remember the nurse who was just in their room 10 minutes ago.”
Restlessness, agitation, paranoia and hallucinations are other common signs of delirium. But no matter how it manifests, delirium can be traumatic for the more than 6 million Americans 65 and older who experience it each year.