Delirium may often be diagnosed, mistreated


April 23, 2012 9:18:25 AM PDT
An estimated seven million Americans experience delirium at the hospital every year, a condition affecting the elderly that goes undiagnosed 60% of the time, is often dismissed at hallucinations and can prove deadly.

A recent stay at the hospital for an emergency surgery had Rolland Pfile terrified.

"Almost anything that I heard, I was interpreting as a death threat," said Pfile.

Pfile was suffering from delirium, a sudden alteration in mental state affecting about 80% of patients on mechanical ventilation in the ICU.

"If I'd have gotten a hold of a weapon, I would have started firing," said Pfile.

"Delirium is acute brain failure," said Malaz Boustani, MD of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Doctor Malaz Boustani says it can be just as serious as having a heart attack.

"Your chance of dath over the next 30 days doubles," said Boustani.

And it doesn't stop there.

"Your chance of developing full-blown Alzheimer's disease over the next five years goes up, 2, sometimes 5 times the odds," said Boustani.

While the exact cause of delirium is not known, for vulnerable older people, developing a urinary tract infection or taking over-the-counter sleeping pill could lead to it. A stroke or heart attack could also trigger delirium. In about 40% of cases, hospital-acquired delirium is preventable. Here's what you can do to help your loved ones: have a list of all the patient's medications. Overmedication can trigger delirium. Bring their glasses and hearing aids. Watch for obvious signs like confusion.

"One hour the patient is back to normal, another hour the patient is more confused. This fluctuation is a red flag," asid Boustani.

Finally make things familiar by bringing comforting objects room home to help orientate them. Tips Pfile's wife wished she had known sooner.

"I knew nothing about delirium. I didn't have a clue," said Laverne Pfile, Rolland's wife.

Until recently, hospital acquired delirium was chalked up to old age and not considered a condition to be prevented or treated. Doctor Boustani says delirium patients also end up in nursing homes 75% of the time, which is five times higher than those without the condition. The condition also leads to longer stays in the hospital; an average of nine days compared to four without delirium, costing patients an average $60,000 per hospital stay.