Delirium — sudden and severe confusion — is a common complication of hospitalization among people ages 65 and over. As many as 20% of those admitted to hospitals, 60% of those who have certain surgeries, and 70% or more of those treated in ICUs develop delirium, reports the Harvard Women's Health Watch in its May 2011 issue.
Anything that disrupts normal brain function can cause delirium, including inflammation, infection, and substances that interfere with brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that communicate between nerve cells. One major pathway involves the neurotransmitter acetylcholine: if blood sugar levels fall too low or the brain doesn't receive enough oxygen, acetylcholine levels can plunge. Also, many medications can trigger delirium, including narcotic painkillers, sedatives, sleeping pills, and certain drugs used to treat high blood pressure, incontinence, and allergy.
About 40% of delirium is preventable. Some hospitals have adopted prevention programs. Families also have an important role to play. Family members are often the only ones to see a loved one throughout an illness, hospitalization, and rehabilitation, notes the Harvard Women's Health Watch. Here are some things the family can do to help prevent or limit delirium:
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