Hospital room

When an accident, fall or other event causes the need for an elderly loved one to be admitted to the hospital, it can be a stressful, worrisome time for the family. In addition to concerns about their recovery from primary injuries or illnesses, research has shown there are also concerns over deteriorating mental health and cognitive ability brought on by the hospital stay itself. Though the cause is unclear and there are many potential factors, recent studies have concluded that hospitalization causes a much higher risk of developing or increasing cognitive problems in elderly patients.

One specific study published in 2012 examined the data of more than 1300 individuals age 65 and older of various backgrounds and ethnicities. Each of these individuals had experienced a hospital stay and had been interviewed at least once before the stay, and at least twice afterwards at 3-year intervals.

Researchers discovered that the rate of cognitive decline more than doubled for these patients after their stay in a hospital. Thinking and memory were found to have declined dramatically across the board.

The lead researcher on the project, Dr. Robert Wilson, said “it’s as if people became 10-years older, from a cognitive standpoint, than they actually were before hospitalization.”

The individuals at the highest risk for rapid cognitive decline were those who started experiencing worsening memory or thinking problems before their hospital stay. The length of their stay in the hospital also made an impact as those with more serious health issues who were admitted for longer stays were also more likely to exhibit cognitive decline.

While not every elderly patient leaves the hospital with previously unidentified cognitive problems, for many, a hospital stay serves to “unmask and accelerate” these issues.

Previous research had already revealed that hospital stays interfere with physical functioning for the elderly. Daily activities like bathing, toileting and dressing have all been impaired for many older patients after leaving the hospital.

One potential cause of both physical and mental changes brought about by a hospital stay is delirium, which is estimated to occur in one in five hospital patients. Rather than a transient, temporary condition, delirium is now regarded more as a brain injury, which can produce fast manifestation of symptoms like confusion, disorientation, agitation and unresponsiveness, and can forever alter mental health and have residual effects well after a supposed recovery.

Another potential mechanism is the medication given to acutely ill patients in intensive care. The long-lasting effects of these medications, specifically on mental health, is severely lacking in research.

Finally, the environment of the hospital itself may be to blame. Because cognitive ability in seniors greatly relies on physical exercise and mental stimulation, being stuck in a bed in a room with little to no stimulation can greatly influence mental health.

All of these potential issues can be addressed and avoided, but families should be aware of potential problems when a loved one is admitted to the hospital. Understand that increased care and support may be necessary after a hospital stay and a rapid cognitive decline could occur.

For alternatives to traditional hospital stays, contact us at Cura-HPC. We offer hospice and palliative care to a variety of patients to provide them a more comfortable, caring environment.