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Sepsis Linked to Dementia in Elderly

Older People Who Survive Sepsis Face Increased Risk for Developing Cognitive Problems, Study Finds
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Oct. 26, 2010 -- Sepsis is a leading cause of death in hospital ICUs, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the life-threatening blood infection.

The thinking had been that once the crisis is over, older people who survive sepsis make full recoveries. But new research finds the opposite to be true.

Elderly people in the study had a threefold increase in life-altering mental declines after surviving sepsis. Study participants with no history of sepsis showed no increase in risk over the course of the study.

Three out of five sepsis survivors experienced serious physical and/or mental declines in the years following the event, says lead researcher Theodore J. Iwashyna, MD, PhD, of the University of Michigan Medical School.

Based on the findings, the researchers estimate that sepsis may be responsible for 20,000 new cases of dementia among people aged 65 or older each year in the U.S. alone.

The study appears Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“The cognitive impairment we saw was often quite severe,” he tells WebMD. “Many people went from being relatively independent to being unable to do their own cooking or live on their own.”

Sepsis Common in Elderly

About 750,000 people in the United States develop sepsis each year. Known in lay terms as blood poisoning, sepsis occurs when the bloodstream is overwhelmed with bacteria, usually in response to the body’s attempt to fight severe infection.

People who become septic usually develop very low blood pressure, or shock. In very severe cases, small blood clots can also form, shutting down vital organs.

The overall death rate for people with sepsis is now about 25%, compared to 50% just two decades ago, Derek C. Angus, MD, tells WebMD.

Angus, who chairs the department of critical care medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, has studied sepsis for many years. He was not involved with this research.

“Before the modern ICU, people with sepsis who developed organ failure usually died,” he says. “Today, many of these people are surviving. But this study confirms that they are not necessarily surviving with a clean bill of health.”

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