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ICU Stays Could Lead to Brain Damage, Study Reports

Update Date: Oct 03, 2013 09:34 AM EDT

The intensive care unit (ICU) in a hospital focuses on critical care for patients with the most life-threatening and severe illnesses or injuries. Patients who end up in the ICU need close monitoring and special medications or equipment. Even though the medical care in ICUs is supposed to be top notch, a new report found that patients who stay in ICUs are at a greater risk of suffering from brain damage.

"Historically, we take care of all the other organs but we ignore the brain," said Dr. Pratik Pandharipande, a professor of anesthesiology and critical care from Vanderbilt University and the study's lead author.

For this study conducted by researches from Vanderbilt University, the team looked at data that was compiled from March 2007 to May 2010. The ICU patients' data were gathered from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Saint Thomas West Hospital in Nashville. The team analyzed a total of 382 patients who were discharged from the ICU. These patients had received cognitive testing to check for dementia symptoms.

"We knew that something was going wrong with people's brains when they were getting out of medical and surgical ICUs but we didn't understand to what degree their brains were being disabled and then having to live with that throughout their life," Dr. Wes Ely, a professor of medicine and critical care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, said according to CBS Evening News. "So, we set out to define exactly what was going on with the survivors of critical care in terms of brain function."

The researchers discovered that regardless of one's age, ICU stays appeared to affect one's risk of dementia. 75 percent of the patients left the ICU with some cognitive issue. The team reported that for ICU patients 49 and younger, around one in five had dementia symptoms that were akin to mild Alzheimer's. Overall, one in three patients had Alzheimer's like symptoms. The researcher found that deep sedation was one of the largest contributors to poorer cognitive scores three months post discharge.

"We as health care providers need to be aware of this when patients come to us with memory problems, with problems managing their finances, etc., and not blow it off as saying, 'This is all going to get better,' because we really don't know," Pandharioande said according to USA Today.

The findings were published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

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