Patient Care

Advanced Dementia Is a Terminal Illness with High Morbidity and Mortality


Clinical question: Does understanding the expected clinical course of advanced dementia influence end-of-life decisions by proxy decision-makers?

Background: Advanced dementia is a leading cause of death in the United States, but the clinical course of advanced dementia has not been described in a rigorous, prospective manner. The lack of information might cause risk to be underestimated, and patients might receive suboptimal palliative care.

Study design: Multicenter prospective cohort study.

Setting: Twenty-two nursing homes in a single U.S. city.

Synopsis: The survey examined 323 nursing home residents with advanced dementia. The patients were clinically assessed at baseline and quarterly for 18 months through chart reviews, nursing interviews, and physical examinations. Additionally, their proxies were surveyed regarding their understanding of the subjects’ prognoses.

During the survey period, 41.1% of patients developed pneumonia, 52.6% of patients experienced a febrile episode, and 85.8% of patients developed an eating problem; cumulative all-cause mortality was 54.8%. Adjusted for age, sex, and disease duration, the six-month mortality rate for subjects who had pneumonia was 46.7%; a febrile episode, 44.5%; and an eating problem, 38.6%.

Distressing symptoms, including dyspnea (46.0%) and pain (39.1%), were common. In the last three months of life, 40.7% of subjects underwent at least one burdensome intervention (defined as hospitalization, ED visit, parenteral therapy, or tube feeding).

Subjects whose proxies reported an understanding of the poor prognosis and expected clinical complications of advanced dementia underwent significantly fewer burdensome interventions (adjusted odds ratio 0.12).

Bottom line: Advanced dementia is associated with frequent complications, including infections and eating problems, with high six-month mortality and significant associated morbidity. Patients whose healthcare proxies have a good understanding of the expected clinical course and prognosis receive less-aggressive end-of-life care.

Citation: Mitchell SL, Teno JM, Kiely DK, et al. The clinical course of advanced dementia. N Engl J Med. 2009;361(16):1529-1538. TH

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