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More evidence of a link between hospitalization and dementia

February 23, 2010 |  4:55 pm

Spending time in a hospital can make you crazy (in a manner of speaking).

Studies have shown that older people who are hospitalized for critical illnesses often suffer from cognitive impairment. But without comparing those patients with older people who managed to steer clear of hospitals, it’s hard to say whether hospitalization itself increases the risk.

Hospital So a group of researchers from the University of Washington and the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill decided to examine the records of 2,929 senior citizens participating in the Adult Changes in Thought study. All of the volunteers were screened for dementia when they enrolled in the study and every two years thereafter.

From 1994 to 2007, 41 of the volunteers were admitted to a hospital for critical illnesses, and five of them went on to develop dementia. An additional 1,287 were treated in a hospital for a noncritical illness, and 228 of them developed dementia. Those rates were higher than for the 1,601 patients who were not hospitalized during the course of the study.

After adjusting for factors like age, sex and years of education, the researchers found that volunteers who were hospitalized for a noncritical illness were 40% more likely to develop dementia than their counterparts who were never hospitalized. The risk was even higher – more than double – for patients who experienced critical illnesses, but those results weren’t statistically significant (perhaps because there weren’t enough patients in this group to nail down the link).

The results will be published in Wednesday’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

The researchers said they weren’t sure why being a hospital patient appears to increase the risk of cognitive decline. In fact, hospitalization itself may have nothing to do with it. Perhaps the illnesses that land patients in the hospital also cause changes in the brain that lead to dementia, they wrote:

“The mechanisms through which critical illness may contribute to neurocognitive impairment are multiple, with evidence suggesting that hypoxemia, delirium, hypotension, glucose dysregulation, systemic inflammation, and sedative and analgesic medications all may potentially play a role.”

— Karen Kaplan

Photo: Could a stay in a hospital room increase your risk for dementia? Credit: Stefano Paltera/For The Times