Severe sepsis can lead to memory problems
October 26th, 2010
04:01 PM ET

Severe sepsis can lead to memory problems

Advances in intensive care medicine are helping older Americans survive severe sepsis, an overwhelming infection, but according to new research these survivors are often left with major memory problems and physical limitations for years after their infection.

Researchers presenting their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that even older adults who were functioning independently before sepsis often came home from the hospital needing full time care because they now had pre-dementia.

"If you look at the risk of moderate to severe cognitive impairment, people with severe sepsis were three times more likely to develop that after sepsis than before," says study author Theodore Iwashyna, critical care doctor at the University of Michigan Medical School.

The study monitored the health of more than 1,000 older adults who developed sepsis, comparing their physical and mental capabilities when healthy to those after they got sick. The researchers used data from a study nationally representative of older Americans called the Health and Retirement Study and had access to years of detailed health information on the patients.

Previous research often attributed declines in mental and physical health after sepsis to underlying health problems beforehand. But these researchers, finding that even healthy, mentally sharp adults experienced significant declines, suggest that the sepsis itself and the treatment strategies afterwards may be playing a major role in the downturns in health.

"This new disability that people develop is often associated with 40 hours of care a week. People come home from the hospital after having survived and their loved ones have a new full time job," explains Iwashyna. "Overall 60 percent of people had worse function afterwards than they did before," he adds.

Dr. Derek Angus, chairman of the Department of Critical Care Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, wrote an accompanying editorial. He has no ties to the current study and says the research may help change current medical practice. "The major advance in this study is it took a concern that was being raised amongst a number of investigators, but a concern that couldn't be proven and has shown this is very likely a real phenomenon," he said.

Severe sepsis is the most common non-heart related reason for a person to end up in a hospital's intensive care unit. More than 750,000 people in the United States are affected by this condition each year, mostly the elderly. Iwashyna says sepsis can develop in patients with a wide range of illnesses such as pneumonia, diabetes, urinary tract infections, those with compromised immune systems and other health problems.

When someone develops sepsis, instead of attacking the infection at the site, the body mounts an overly aggressive immune response and ends up turning on itself, often damaging vital organs such as the heart, lungs and kidneys. If blood pressure drops too drastically doctors suspect the brain and other vital organ don't get enough oxygen to function properly often leaving people physically and mentally impaired.

Iwashyna says more research is needed to develop better treatment strategies for patients with severe sepsis and therapies to minimize the mental and physical impairments seen in patients. In the mean time he suggests people try to prevent the condition by getting pneumonia and flu vaccines and, if diabetic, getting excellent care.

If a loved one does develop sepsis, it's important to talk to your doctor about physical mobility and rehabilitation exercises, but just as importantly, strategies and therapies to help the brain function better.

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Chalupa

    I guess this had to be rigidly studied to be proven but to those of us practicing medicine, this is nothing new.

    October 26, 2010 at 19:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Claire

      Agreed. I think memory loss is associated with a lot of things that have not yet surfaced. Those "total mouth" dental infections that linger for months and require multiple surgeries, undergoing multiple procedures requiring general anesthesia in close proximity, and others. And age or weak condition may compound it.

      October 27, 2010 at 13:30 | Report abuse |
  2. Jim

    Folks should also know that a urinary tract infection (UTI) in an elderly person is akin to sepsis. It will cause dementia-like mental conditions. I've experienced this twice with my mother, age 84.

    October 26, 2010 at 20:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Elle

    If only i had known this. in 2008, my best friend had pneumonia-related sepsis. physically she mostly recovered-but something was different, and we both sort of knew it. however-her home health care provider still declined to increase her coverage from the 1.5 hours per day to 3. why? because she wasn't "incontinent". she'd lost the ability to cook her own meals, lost all motivation to leave her apartment, and lost-and this screamed to me- her ability to do crossword puzzles. in the end, another case of sepsis killed her-but not before being left for dead by yet another "one and a half hour and i'm done", poorly-trained worker. if only i'd known about this study: i would never, ever have gone to work that day. able to call 911 if she got "that sick"? no, she wasn't...and no, she didn't. and now i know why.

    October 27, 2010 at 03:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. John

    Has anyone looked into a new treatment that is finishing up there trials in Europe? The companies name is cytosorbants and it seems to be showing some good results. Maybe this can be a breakthrough in treating sepsis. Let's hope because there are not many options for the patient at this point.

    October 28, 2010 at 08:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Tammy Lasley

    This answered alot of questions I had that my doctors couldn't answer. I went septic on May 3rd, I died twice, the first time I stopped breathing, the second time my heart stopped. They gave me a 1% chance to make it. Now I have had memory problems, I have had to learn my job all over again ( I am a medical transcriptionist), I kept telling people that something was wrong with my memory, but they all just said that it was normal, that they all forget things now and then. I forget little things, I somtimes can't remember how to write my name, or my kids names, b-days etc. Now I know why and thanks to this article will bring it up to my doctor. I am only 46 so I know its not an "age" thing. Thank you for this article.

    December 10, 2010 at 08:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Elaine Allen

    I am 61 and I had sepsis this year. I keep saying my memory isn't right and yesterday I put together a holiday dinner and while it was very good, it did not come off like I in the past. I forgot to cook things, things I cooked previously, I forgot to put out ... all other years, I usually have it all come together really nicely, but when it was time to eat yesterday I needed help. It all bugged me so much I did google memory and sepsis.
    This sheds some light on my issue and I'm not sure what to do about it all yet, but thank you for this article.

    December 26, 2011 at 13:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Dianna Beasley

    I am 45 and I had sepsis last year due to pnuemonia. .My memory hasn't been the same since the sepsis .I also used to be a very active person.Now I just want stay home most of the time in my pajamas.I had severe chest pain for the longest time.I still don't sleep on my left side since leaving the hospital and it still hurts alot..I'm tired all of the time and my body hurts.I can't wear most of my clothes or shoes because they feel like weights to me. I am unable to cook and clean much anymore.can't stand long and can't breathe in cleaners. I have severe lung damage and am always short of breath.when I first left the hospital I couldn't hardly dress or toilet myself.I'm doing better now but ?.I feel like my life has been stolen from me and I'm just existing.wondering if life will ever be the same again and so scared it will come back.

    January 19, 2014 at 20:42 | Report abuse | Reply

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