Lighter Sedation Lowers Delirium Risk

Undergoing surgery carries some measure of risk for every age but older adults and their families may not be aware of a common side-effect among elderly patients.   Postoperative delirium occurs frequently among seniors and can affect long-term outcomes.

According to a recent study, published in the JAMA Surgery, more than 7 million hospitalized Americans experience delirium each year.  Delirium is an acute disturbance in behavior that can include disorganized thinking and agitation; although it can affect patients of any age, it is more common among older adults, especially following major surgery or a stay in an intensive care unit. 

Researchers have found that lighter sedation reduces the risk for postoperative delirium among elderly patients and results in better overall health.  The study findings indicate that sedation levels during surgery should match a patient’s health status; patients with few or no other chronic health condition can benefit from a lighter sedation and reduce the risk for delirium.  Delirium can result in longer hospital stays, long-term cognitive impairment and death.

Hospital-acquired delirium is a common condition and yet it often goes undiagnosed and untreated.  It can be brought on by a combination of factors including surgery, infection, isolation, dehydration, poor nutrition and medications.   According to the Canadian Geriatrics Society, people who have dementia or are particularly frail are a higher risk for developing delirium during a hospital stay.

Delirium is a serious medical condition and should be treated quickly to prevent long-term complications, functional decline or death.  To help prevent delirium, it’s important for elderly patients to stay as independent as possible and be encouraged to engage socially and cognitively.  Families can help by making sure elderly loved ones have easy access to eyeglasses, hearing aids and mobility devices so they can see and hear what’s going on around them and get up to use the bathroom or share a meal.  A nearby clock with a large face and a comfortable chair can also encourage patients to stay engaged.  To make sure older patients are getting proper nutrition, families may want to bring in a favorite meal and be sure dentures are properly fitted.  Check with the hospital about any dietary restrictions.

Learn more about the symptoms, causes, complications and prevention of delirium by following this link to the Mayo Clinic website.