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Delirium in the Elderly

New grant will improve understanding of delirium in older adults

Sharon K. Inouye, M.D., M.P.H.'s picture
Delirium in the Elderly
Delirium in the Elderly

Delirium in the elderly is a serious, under-recognized and often fatal condition that affects between 25-60 percent of older hospital patients. Although scientists have made progress toward predicting, treating and preventing delirium, there is still a great deal of work to be done.

For that reason, I was very gratified to receive an award from the National Institutes of Health to build the nation’s first Center of Excellence for Delirium Research, or CEDARTREE. CEDARTREE is located in the Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife and operates under the direction of a national advisory board in collaboration with Harvard Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and other Massachusetts academic institutions.

The grant recognizes the Institute’s role at the forefront of research into this complex condition. Delirium is an acute decline in cognitive functioning and attention, but that delirium definition doesn’t do justice to how serious a threat it is to senior health-- it can lead to longer hospital stays, nursing home admission and even death. Patients with delirium have difficulty keeping track of instructions and conversation. They can appear to be very groggy or disoriented. They may not know the time of day, be able to recognize people or remember recent events.

Delirium vs. dementia-- they are often mistaken for each other, and we’re studying that relationship at our Aging Brain Center. We do know that a senior who has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is about five times more likely to develop delirium in the hospital, and will be less likely to recover from it. (There is a common misconception that delirium is a short-term condition, but our research is looking at its long-term impact on physical and cognitive functioning.)

There are many other promising avenues for study, and we believe that CEDARTREE will stimulate much-needed research-- by training and mentoring researchers, disseminating research findings and serving as a local and national resource. CEDARTREE will bring delirium research forward through collaboration, with the goal of increased prevention and recognition of delirium, which ultimately will lead to improved care for seniors. 

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Director, Aging Brain Center

Sharon Inouye, M.D., M.P.H., is a geriatrician at HRC, senior scientist at the Institute for Aging Research, and director of its Aging Brain Center. She also holds the Milton and Shirley F. Levy Family Chair in Alzheimer's Disease at IFAR. Dr. Inouye received her medical degree from the University of California San Francisco and her master's in public health from Yale University. She completed a residency at the UCSF, an internal medicine fellowship at Stanford University School of Medicine, and a fellowship in geriatrics and clinical epidemiology at Yale. Her research focuses on the...

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