Article Finder

Browse our vast collection of articles. Simply select a category on the left and find a list of related articles on the right.

Article Title

Back to Categories

Blood Poisoning’s Toll on the Brain


Every year, some 750,000 Americans suffer from sepsis, a life-threatening ailment that many have never heard of. The condition, sometimes called “blood poisoning” though no poison is involved, is an inflammatory response to serious infection that can cause damage to multiple tissues and organs. New findings show that the condition may lead to loss of memory and thinking skills that, when severe, may mimic the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Earlier this year, a study from the University of Washington in Seattle found that older men and women who receive critical care in the hospital are more likely to suffer from memory loss and cognitive decline than their peers who are not hospitalized and an earlier study, led by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Hebrew Senior Life in Boston, found that an episode of delirium, marked by agitation, confusion and hallucinations, rapidly accelerates cognitive decline and memory loss in Alzheimer’s patients.

In the current study, researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor sifted through data from more than 27,000 men and women over 50 who were part of the Health and Retirement Study, an ongoing national health survey of American residents. Among the study participants, nearly 1,200 had been hospitalized for severe sepsis, a critical condition that requires intensive medical care and that can damage the skin, kidneys, lungs and other organs.

The researchers followed the sepsis patients for up to eight years and found that the condition was not just bad for the body. Many of those who had severe sepsis showed thinking and memory problems that were similar to those of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“An episode of severe sepsis, even when survived, may represent a sentinel event in the lives of patients and their families, resulting in new and often persistent disability, in some cases even resembling dementia,” the authors wrote.

The researchers found that the prevalence of moderate to severe cognitive impairment increased 10.6 percentage points among patients who survived severe sepsis. Their odds of acquiring moderate to severe cognitive impairment were more than three times higher than those who didn’t have sepsis, including those who were admitted to the hospital for other medical problems.

“Cognitive and functional declines of the magnitude seen after severe sepsis are associated with significant increases in caregiver time, nursing home admission, depression, and mortality,” the authors wrote. “These data argue that the burden of sepsis survivorship is a substantial, under-recognized public health problem with major implications for patients, families and the health care system.” The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The authors added that given published dementia and sepsis incidence rates for those ages 65 years or older in the United Slates, their results suggest that nearly 20,000 new cases per year of moderate to severe cognitive impairment in the elderly may be attributable to sepsis.

Unlike Alzheimer’s, sepsis is a curable condition, though it remains a leading cause of death in hospitals. Symptoms include fever, chills, difficulty breathing and general weakness. The condition can rapidly worsen, making immediate hospitalization and prompt treatment with fluids and antibiotics critical.

The findings point to the need for prompt medical care for serious infections in those with or without Alzheimer’s disease. They also point to the need for long-term follow-up, since even if the infection is successfully treated, there may be long-term damage to the brain and body.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Dr. Derek Angus of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine noted that the findings “…can help physicians when assessing care options and discussing outcomes with patients and families.” Researchers aren’t sure why sepsis may contribute to cognitive decline, but by raising awareness of the issue, the hope is that doctors and family members will be more aware of the risk of thinking and memory problems during and after hospital stays.

A trip to the hospital, with its strange sights and sounds and change in routine, can lead to confusion and agitation in any patient. The problem may be especially challenging for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. If hospitalization is needed, experts recommend that family members and loved ones stick close by whenever possible to help ease the transition.

By, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.


Theodore J. Iwashyna; E. Wesley Ely; Dylan M. Smith; et al.  “Long-term Cognitive Impairment and Functional Disability Among Survivors of Severe Sepsis.” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 304(16), Oct. 27, 2010, pages 1787-1794.

Derek C. Angus: “The Lingering Consequences of Sepsis: A Hidden Public Health Disease?” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 304(16), Oct. 27, 2010, pages 1833-1834.

3Add a Comment


May 9, 2011 at 11:17 pm

I am wondering if there is a point of contact at the UW Medical center for this study.

J. Smellow

Debbie Lurie

May 16, 2011 at 11:51 am

Everything, I have read on this is exactly what our mom is going through. What treatment is suggested. Had a CT scan and No shadowing was found. Let me know. Thank you!
Debbie Lurie

jane d

February 1, 2014 at 2:47 pm

I need to thank God that after going through severe sepsis following back surgery to correct scoliosis at age 55, changes to modernize the Department of Veterans Affairs and the decision to not hold employees accountable for their work as long as we made our goals is the ONLY reason I was able to hang on long enough to reach my minimum retirement age of 58 after 30 years of civil service, which I did on January 24, 2014. My points pre-transformation was a required 6 per day, and I had been meeting that number for years since that number was required. I thought missing 3-1/2 months of work was the reason I had trouble remembering things I had known pre-surgery, but not only did I frequently ask coworkers for answers to questions people used to come to me for, I had to KEEP asking questions and never regained what I used to know about processing veteran claims. My points dropped, and dropped, and dropped until reaching my retirement date with an average just slightly above two of the six points required. Thank God my memory of more complex cases stuck with me and I could mentor rather than be on numbered production all day. Oh, and a psychiatrist said I had ADHD (diagnosed summer of 2013) saying I could not concentrate. But I know for a fact I have not been the same (mind or body) since going through the hell known as sepsis. And now I read that any major infection I may have for years to come can kill me just because I had gone through sepsis before? Life is not fair. I thought maybe being retired I could finallynot ALWAYS be exhausted, could possibly enjoy life again, do some gardening or dog training and instead, I am reading a 100% mortality rate for a group of humans that I AM IN! I already continue to take cephalexin antibiotic 2x a day just to ward off the re-emergence of my infection which in all probability remains along my spine somewhere where rods and two dozen screws exist among the 14 vertebrea that wew

Comments are closed here.

We consistently receive top awards and ratings for our accountability: