Delirium, Dementia, and the Aging Brain: Searching for Answers

Dr Jones: Very little research has been completed in the area of cognitive and brain reserve and vulnerability to delirium. Observational studies showing relationships between reserve proxies (eg, educational attainment) and risk for delirium have shown a suggestive relationship11 and this finding has been replicated in some12 but not all attempts.13 There does seem to be strong evidence that intelligence13 and level of cognitive performance14 are very important predictors of delirium in hospitalized older adults. And very recently, we have published a study demonstrating that markers of reserve modify the risk for delirium associated with inflammation.15 The effects of this study are small, but that is expected since inflammation is only one possible causal mechanism underlying the occurrence of delirium. More importantly, this work is significant because our study represents the first attempt to test the reserve hypothesis in the context of delirium. Stronger evidence will come from randomized controlled trials, such as the Cognitive Intervention for Delirium in Dementia trial recently completed at Penn State University by Dr Ann M. Kolanowski and Dr Donna M. Fick [ Identifier: NCT01267682].

Psychiatry Advisor: Are there interventions that might be beneficial for preventing delirium in persons with dementia? 

Donna Marie Fick, PhD, RN, FGSA, FAAN: This is an area where we need more research, as persons with dementia have been included in intervention studies but their numbers have been very limited and they are sometimes excluded or not well characterized in studies. However, they do seem to benefit from similar interventions as persons without dementia: multicomponent programs like the Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP) that promote mobility, hydration, avoiding physical restraints, sleep hygiene, pain management, and avoiding benzodiazepines and other strong anticholinergic medications like diphenhydramine and antipsychotics

Psychiatry Advisor: Which strategies are more effective in delirium: prevention or management?

Dr Fick: Prevention has been found to be more effective than management in delirium. At Penn State, we conducted an NIH [National Institutes of Health]-funded trial [ Identifier: NCT01505257] with a nurse-led intervention for delirium superimposed on dementia (DSD) and found that, using the EMR [electronic medical record] and education, we were able to get nurses to better recognize delirium in persons with dementia and to give fewer prn (pro re nata or “as needed”) psychoactive medications.

In this study we found that a tailored person-centered approach may be more important for the prevention and management of delirium in persons with dementia so that the underlying behavior and needs can be better understood if patients are not able to communicate well. We developed an All About Me Board to help us know them better and, if possible, get input from the older adult and family members/caregivers so that clinicians do not resort to using medications that cause harm and lead to delirium or falls.

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In a second study (principal investigators Dr Kolanowski and Dr Fick), we did a single-component intervention with tailored cognitive stimulation and, in this randomized controlled trial [ Identifier: NCT01267682], though we were not able to impact the number or delirium-free days, we were able to improve executive functioning.16

Psychiatry Advisor: What are some of the existing knowledge gaps about delirium, and which topics should future research focus on?

Dr Fick: Dr Sharon Inouye and I published a research agenda for DSD in 200217 and many of these areas are still in need of research. We definitely need more studies that are specifically designed to test whether different interventions and measures are needed for delirium in persons with dementia. A few of the gaps in research are comparing single-component vs multicomponent interventions for DSD, involving stakeholders (clinicians, persons with dementia, and their caregivers) in the design of interventions, prevention approaches in special populations like persons with dementia who live alone (as large as 30%) and those with intellectual disabilities, and comorbidities. In my opinion, one of the biggest areas where more research is needed is in home and community-based care. In our work, we found that more than 25% of persons with dementia come in with delirium, so the prevention needs to move into the community. Another area that needs more attention is understanding and disrupting attitudes, stereotypes, and ageism that may delay recognition of delirium and care for persons with dementia.


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