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Recent Study Shows COVID-19 May Cause Delirium in Older Adults


December 2022

As we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, discoveries are still being made about the virus that has altered our community and daily lives for more than two years.

A recent study published by EvergreenHealth experts has found that the virus, commonly associated with the lungs, can cause neurological manifestations including delirium, a syndrome that significantly increases your risk for dementia.

In the early days of the pandemic, Pinky Agarwal, MD, FAAN, and Brad Tyson, PsyD, with EvergreenHealth's Neurological Care aimed to better understand the neurological impacts of COVID-19.

In their initial study of patients presenting to EvergreenHealth with COVID-19, almost 75% had neurological manifestations such as headache or dizziness, and nearly one in four showed signs of confusion, according to Dr. Tyson.

With these results, EvergreenHealth was the first hospital in the U.S. to publish research describing the neurological effects of COVID-19.

In their more recent research, Dr. Agarwal and Dr. Tyson specifically focused on altered mental status due to COVID-19. This study collected data from the first 516 patients presenting to the EvergreenHealth Emergency Department with COVID-19. These patients were between 53 and 99 years of age with an average age of 78.

"I think we were a bit surprised by our initial findings, so we further investigated how these neurological manifestations of COVID-19, particularly delirium, related to patient outcomes," Dr. Tyson said. "Even when controlling for factors such as age and gender, we found that individuals presenting to the emergency department with delirium had significantly higher mortality than those without delirium. Some patients with COVID-19 had delirium without any respiratory symptoms. We also found that a history of neurological disease, especially dementia, was associated with higher mortality than any other preexisting medical condition including chronic lung diseases, cardiovascular diseases and even cancer."

These findings helped inform medical providers and our community the importance of COVID-19 prevention and an even bigger priority for older adults vulnerable to delirium.

"We still face the threat of acute and chronic neurological complications due to COVID-19, and as a result, the possibility of escalating memory complaints. A better understanding of COVID-19 and its impact on the brain and rest of the nervous system can help us develop better prevention and treatment methods with the goal of reducing negative long-term outcomes before they occur" Dr. Agarwal said.

Next Steps for You and Your Family

These findings are yet another reason why preventing COVID-19 infection is so important for your health, especially if you are an older adult or at a higher risk of neurological conditions.

Talk to your primary care physician to learn about your risk factors so that you can take proper preventative steps.

Your doctor can also help you get up to date on your COVID-19 vaccinations and go over further preventative measures you should be taking.

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