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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Memory Problems May Worsen After Hospital Stay

Senior Citizens Who Are Hospitalized May Experience a Decline in Memory
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 21, 2012 -- Older people who are hospitalized may experience a worsening of their memory problems and thinking abilities after they are discharged, a new study suggests.

Exactly why this occurs is not fully understood. “Hospitalization is very common in older age and many older Americans are struggling with their [mental] function,” says researcher Robert S. Wilson, PhD. He is the senior neuropsychologist of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago. “We think that people who have [mental] problems may be more likely to be hospitalized in the first place.”

The study included 1,870 people older than 65. Participants were interviewed every three years for up to 12 years to test their memory and thinking skills. Of those, 71% were hospitalized at least once during the study period.

Scores on the tests declined slightly with age. That said, scores declined twice as fast after a first hospital stay, the study shows. The results held even after researchers took into account severe illness, longer hospital stay, and older age.

In the study, just 3% of people were in the critical care unit. Most were hospitalized for general medical conditions. The findings appear in Neurology.

Good Preventive Care May Keep People Out of the Hospital

Good primary care and leading a healthy lifestyle may help prevent certain unnecessary hospitalizations. Still, “many times hospitalization is necessary,” Wilson says.

Marc L. Gordon, MD, agrees. He is the chief of neurology at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y. “Try to take as good preventive care as possible so you don’t become ill and need to be hospitalized,” he says.

While this often may be easier said than done, there are some simple ways to help keep out of the hospital, he says. For example, “people who are immunized against the flu may have a lower risk of being hospitalized for complications,” he says.

Richard S. Isaacson, MD, says the new findings mirror what he sees with his own patients. He is an associate professor of clinical neurology at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “More likely than not, any patient with [current mental] impairment who comes out of the hospital will not return to their previous level of functioning,” he says.

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