Dementia patients in hospital ‘suffering in silence’, according to ‘deeply troubling’ new research

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Hospital-bound dementia patients are “suffering in silence” because they are unable to communicate the pain they are in, according to a new study.

Research by Marie Curie and University College London found that over a third of patients with the disease are unable to explain how they are feeling to hospital staff.

The researchers warned that both pain and delirium, a state of acute confusion to which old people are particularly susceptible, are common among dementia patients on hospital wards but these conditions are “often under-diagnosed and under-treated”.

Roughly 40 per cent of all patients in acute hospital wards are thought to be suffering from dementia.

The team set out to examine the dementia severity, delirium and pain levels among 230 dementia patients aged 70 and over admitted to two British hospitals.

They found that almost half – 49 per cent – of the patients studied were suffering pain while resting, and delirium developed in 15 per cent.

Of the 35 per cent of participants who were delirious and unable to self-report pain, 33 per cent of these participants experienced pain at rest, according to the study, published in the journal Age And Ageing.

Meanwhile the odds of being delirious were 3.26 times higher in participants experiencing pain at rest.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a loose term used to describe different degenerative disorders that trigger a gradual loss of brain function, including:

  • memory loss
  • thinking speed
  • mental agility
  • language
  • understanding
  • judgement

Is it the same as Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia.

Who gets it?

One in three people over 65 will develop dementia, and two-thirds of people with dementia are women.

Is there a cure?

Most types of dementia can’t be cured, but if it is detected early there are ways to slow it down and maintain mental function.

Source: NHS

“It’s deeply troubling to think that this vulnerable group of patients are suffering in silence, unable to tell healthcare professionals that they are in pain,” said Dr Liz Sampson, of the Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Department at University College London.

“Studies like this may help hospital staff provide better care now and in the future as dementia diagnosis rates continue to rise.”

She added: “We know that they are a high-risk group for delirium and yet delirium is often under-treated.

“Our latest work suggests that pain could be a cause of delirium.”

Dr Doug Brown, chief policy and research officer at the Alzheimer’s Society, said doctors and nurses needed better training to detect and treat signs of pain in Alzheimer’s patients.

“We know that people living with dementia can find it difficult to communicate, and when this concerns inability to communicate pain to hospital staff, it’s clearly extremely concerning, as it’s not only upsetting and frustrating but can have serious consequences on a person’s health,” he said.

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