Feinberg study shows memory of the eldery is negatively affected by hospital stays

Rachelle Blidner

After a hospital stay, senior citizens may feel like students who have pulled an all-nighter, according to the lead researcher of a study recently conducted at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Researchers discovered that seniors may experience low cognition or short-term memory loss after spending more than one night in a hospital. According to the study, memory tends to improve about a month after discharge.

Researchers studied 200 seniors over the age of 70 who did not have previously reported memory problems. After staying in a hospital for more than 24 hours, almost one-third of seniors scored low on memory tests. One month after discharge, 58 percent of patients had improved scores on their cognition tests.

This memory loss can be especially detrimental when it comes to remembering discharge instructions, said Dr. Lee Lindquist, lead researcher for the study.

“If you don’t follow instructions just right, you can end up back in the hospital, and re-hospitalization is detrimental to their health,” said the assistant professor in geriatric medicine. “For every day a senior is in the hospital, it takes two weeks to regain their strength.”

Seniors who go home confused about their discharge instructions may be labeled as having memory loss and may be placed in a nursing facility unnecessarily, Lindquist said.

Many insurance companies no longer cover re-hopsitalizations, which also makes forgetting instructions a financial burden, she said.

Patients are often woken up in the middle of the night to check their vital signs during a hospital stay, which can cause sleep deprivation, Lindquist said. A combination of new medication, changed eating patterns and lack of sleep contributes to seniors’ loss of cognition, she said.

“They’re pretty sick, so when you put these all together, you can see how a hospital stay can make memory a little worse,” Lindquist said.

Dr. Victoria Braund is the director of the division of geriatrics at NorthShore University HealthSystem, and she said she has seen many patients who experience delirium after a hospital stay and get their “days and nights flipped around.”

Still, remembering instructions from a doctor can be difficult for anyone, she said.

“People just don’t remember,” Braund said. “Doctors talk fast and use big words, and people are stressed and don’t always get it.”

Braund said she recommends writing discharge instructions down, and both she and Lindquist said letting seniors maintain their sleep cycles may help them remember more.

Family members are the most important tool for seniors to remember their instructions, both doctors said. Braund said she always takes a week off of work whenever her mother needs surgery to visit her at a hospital in Utah.

“Anybody who goes into a modern hospital has to have family with them every step of the way because it’s too complex and there’s too much room for error,” Braund said. “You need to have family members looking out for you.”

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