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Sepsis can lead to mental, physical decline: study

Older adults who develop sepsis ā€” a serious, widespread bacterial infection -- are at risk of declining both mentally and physically in subsequent years, a new study has found.

The researchers say their findings suggest the long-term effects of sepsis are under-recognized and could account for a number of the cases of dementia that are diagnoses each year.

Sepsis is a serious condition that's sometimes called blood poisoning. It can start as a reaction to an infection such as pneumonia, but eventually causes the entire immune system to begin attacking the body's organs and tissues. It affects thousands of patients each year, and is a leading cause of death in hospital ICUs.

About 40 per cent of sepsis patients will die. But for those who survive -- usually with the use of antibiotics -- it had been assumed that most make a full recovery.

Yet this new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found that older sepsis patients have a much higher risk of developing a significant mental and physical decline afterward.

The study, led by Dr. Theodore J. Iwashyna, of the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, Mich., looked at the medical information from 516 people over age 50 who survived severe sepsis, comparing them to 4,517 older adults hospitalized for other conditions. The average age of survivors at hospitalization was 76.9 years.

The participants were assessed for cognitive problems as well as physical disabilities four years before their illness and then again about eight years afterward.

They found that three out of five of the sepsis patients, or about 60 per cent, experienced worsening cognitive or physical function, or both, after their infection.

Nearly 17 per cent showed signs of moderate to severe cognitive impairment. About 40 per cent of sepsis patients later had trouble walking, and 20 per cent needed assistance with everyday activities, such as going to the grocery store or preparing a meal.

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