From the Journals

Add delirium to checklist of COVID-19 symptoms in seniors


Study details

For the study, Kennedy and colleagues enrolled consecutive adults aged 65 years and older who were diagnosed with active COVID-19 and who presented to emergency departments at seven centers in Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Michigan, and North Carolina on or after March 13, 2020. Active infection with SARS-CoV-2 was determined on the basis of results of nasal swab polymerase chain reaction tests (99% of cases) or the appearance and distribution of ground-glass opacities on chest radiography or CT (1%).

Of the 817 patients enrolled, 386 (47%) were men, 493 (62%) were White, 215 (27%) were Black, and 54 (7%) were Hispanic or Latinx. The mean age of patients was 77.7 years (standard deviation, 8.2). Their age placed them at risk for chronic comorbidities and cognitive problems; indeed, 15% had at least four chronic conditions, and 30% had existing cognitive impairment.

The authors note that among the 226 patients (28%) who had delirium at presentation, 60 (27%) had experienced delirium for a duration of 2 to 7 days.

Additionally, of the 226 patients who exhibited delirium as a primary symptom, 84 (37%) showed no typical COVID-19 symptoms or signs, such as cough, fever, or shortness of breath.

The presence of delirium did not correlate with any of the typical COVID-19 symptoms in particular; Kennedy noted that only 56% of patients in the cohort had a fever at presentation.

Delirium at presentation was significantly associated with a median hospital stay of more than 8 days (aRR, 1.14; 95% CI, .97 – 1.35) and a greater risk for discharge to a rehabilitation facility (aRR, 1.55; 95% CI, 1.07 – 2.26). Factors associated with delirium included age older than 75 years, residence in a nursing home or assisted-living facility, previous use of psychoactive medications, vision impairment, hearing impairment, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease.

Kennedy noted that the rate of delirium observed in this study is much higher than that generally reported in emergency department studies conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic. In those studies, the delirium rate ranged from 7% to 20%. The associated risk factors, however, are comparable.

“Mounting evidence supports the high occurrence of delirium and other neuropsychiatric manifestations with COVID-19, with previously reported rates of 22% to 33% among hospitalized patients,” Kennedy and associates write.

In Carpenter’s opinion, the development of incident delirium while receiving care in the emergency department, as opposed to delirium at the time of presentation, has been exacerbated by the no-visitor policies mandated by the pandemic, which have prevented visits even from personal caregivers of patients with moderate to severe dementia. “Although healthcare systems need to be cognizant of the risk of spread to uninfected caregivers, there’s a risk-benefit balance that must be found, because having one caregiver at the bedside can prevent delirium in cognitively impaired patients,” said Carpenter, who was not involved in the current study.

Among the barriers to improving the situation, Carpenter cited the lack of routine delirium screening and the absence of high-quality evidence to support emergency department interventions to mitigate delirium.

“Layer those challenges on top of COVID-19’s rapidly evolving diagnostic landscape, frequent atypical presentations, and asymptomatic carriers across all age groups and the negative impact of delirium is magnified,” Carpenter said.

Once elderly patients are hospitalized, Kennedy recommends the nonpharmacologic guidelines of the Hospital Elder Life Program for reducing delirium risk. Recommendations include the providing of adequate sleep, hydration, and nutrition, as well as function restoration, precipitant avoidance, and reorientation.

The study was supported in part by the National Institute on Aging and the Massachusetts Medical School. The authors, Carpenter, Hung, and Catic have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

This article first appeared on


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