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Delirium in elderly people: an update

Leentjens, Albert FGa; van der Mast, Rose Cb

Current Opinion in Psychiatry: May 2005 - Volume 18 - Issue 3 - p 325–330
doi: 10.1097/01.yco.0000165603.36671.97

Purpose of review To review recent studies on epidemiology, diagnosis, pathophysiology, treatment and prevention of delirium in elderly people.

Recent findings There is no evidence that the clinical picture of delirium in elderly people differs from that in younger patients, although it may run a more chronic course. Diagnosing delirium in demented patients, however, may be difficult due to overlap in symptoms of delirium and dementia. Systematic use of screening and diagnostic instruments may help to diminish the common underdiagnosis of delirium. Delirium is best understood as the result of multiple interacting predisposing and precipitating factors. In the elderly, predisposing factors that make patients more susceptible for delirium include cognitive dysfunction and older age, while important precipitating factors that directly cause delirium are any somatic events and the use of anticholinergic drugs. Delirium has a significant negative prognostic impact on functional and cognitive outcome, as well as on morbidity and mortality. Haloperidol remains the standard treatment for delirium, while there is some evidence for the efficacy of risperidone. Other atypical antipsychotics, as well as cholinesterase inhibitors, have not yet been sufficiently studied. Results of studies on the effectiveness of systematic screening of populations at risk and standardized interventions to prevent delirium have been inconclusive.

Summary In recent years, the emphasis in the approach to delirium has shifted from ad hoc treatment to systematic screening and prevention. Interest has been raised in treatment options other than haloperidol, such as atypical antipsychotics and procholinergic drugs.

aDepartment of Psychiatry, Maastricht University Hospital, Maastricht

bDepartment of Psychiatry, Leiden University Medical Centre, Leiden, The Netherlands

Correspondence to Albert F.G. Leentjens, MD, PhD, Consultant Psychiatrist, Department of Psychiatry, Maastricht University Hospital, PO Box 5800, 6202 AZ Maastricht, The Netherlands Tel: +31 43 3877443; fax: +31 43 3875444; e-mail:

© 2005 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.