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About cognitive impairment

Cognitive impairment in hospital is often associated with adverse outcomes, such as falls. For some people with cognitive impairment and for their carers and families, a hospital stay can be a negative experience. Staff may struggle to provide the right care in the absence of appropriate education and training.

The first step to making a person’s stay safer is to understand the different forms of cognitive impairment, the people who are at risk, and what steps can be taken to reduce harm. 

Cognitive impairment:

  • Impedes communication, attention, memory, thinking and problem solving
  • Means a person may not be able to carry out tasks or be unable to recognise people or objects
  • Can be temporary or permanent
  • Will affect what the person can understand and how they relate to others and interpret the environment.

Understanding what each person is experiencing will help you to communicate with that person and provide the right care.

Cognitive impairment can affect us all. People with cognitive impairment may be our patients, our parents, our loved ones, or us.

Common conditions associated with cognitive impairment 

Dementia and delirium are the two most common forms of cognitive impairment among older people admitted to hospital. While they are not a normal part of getting old,  these conditions commonly affect older people. As our population ages, the number of people with delirium and dementia in hospital will increase.

Dementia causes progressive cognitive impairment, affecting memory, judgement, language and the ability to perform everyday tasks. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Dementia is predominately a disorder related to age but can affect people younger than 65 years old. This is known as younger onset dementia.

Delirium is an acute disturbance of consciousness, attention and cognition that tends to fluctuate during the course of the day. It can be a treatable medical emergency. Delirium is common in hospitals but is often not detected or is misdiagnosed. Delirium can be treated if diagnosed early and even prevented with the right care following a hospital admission.People with dementia are at a greater risk of developing delirium.

People may also be cognitively impaired due to either:

  • An acquired brain injury
  • A stroke, or
  • An intellectual disability. 

Any form of cognitive impairment needs to recognised, understood and acted on.

Further information is available on the Caring for cognitive impairment website.

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