WASHINGTON -- For people with Alzheimer's disease, a hospital stay may prove catastrophic.
People with dementia are far more likely to be hospitalized than other older adults, often for preventable reasons such as an infection that wasn't noticed early enough. Hospitals can be upsetting to anyone, but consider the added fear factor if you can't remember where you are, or why strangers keep poking you.
Now, a new study highlights the lingering ill effects: Being hospitalized seems to increase the chances of Alzheimer's patients moving into a nursing home -- or even dying -- within the next year, Harvard researchers reported Monday. The risk is higher if those patients experience what's called delirium, a state of extra confusion and agitation, during their stay.
It's not clear exactly why, but specialists say delirium is especially bad for an already-damaged brain. But the researchers, and independent Alzheimer's experts, agree that caregivers need to know the risk, so they can help a loved one with dementia avoid the hospital if at all possible.
"It's a very stressful time, being in the hospital," says lead researcher Tamara Fong of the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston. Often families tell Dr. Fong, "Dad was never the same after he had that surgery, and he was confused."
Some 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's or similar dementias, and the disease is on the rise as the population rapidly gets older. The disease will cost Medicare and Medicaid about $140 billion this year, the Alzheimer's Association says. There's no cure. Much of the cost is from treating other health conditions dementia can aggravate.
First Published June 19, 2012 12:00 AM