How a stay in the ICU can affect the brain

Serious illnesses can impact brain health in older adults

Image of a brain. (Image provided by Henry Ford Health System.)

After a lengthy stay in a hospital intensive care unit (ICU), some people experience lingering cognitive, emotional or behavioral issues for weeks or months afterward.

It’s a worrisome issue that doctors often see in older patients -- and even more so since so many people have been in the ICU with severe, life-threatening cases of COVID-19.

“In some cases, it’s a very long haul to get back to normal because of the toll serious illnesses take on the body and brain, particularly in older adults,” said Dr. Brad Merker, a neuropsychologist with Henry Ford Health System and director of the Post-ICU Brain Health Clinic.

To diagnose and address neurological issues someone might experience after a hospital stay, Henry Ford created the Post-ICU Brain Health Clinic. The clinic offers specialized testing and evaluation services for people ages 55 and older to diagnose any underlying brain health issues.

Impact on brain health after long hospitalizations

After a long hospital ICU stay, some older adults may experience post-ICU syndrome, or PICS. People with PICS may experience a variety of issues, including:

  • Cognitive issues. Some people experience what they describe as “brain fog.” This usually relates to cognitive difficulties, such as confusion, attention problems, trouble thinking or reasoning, reduced concentration, or short-term memory loss.
  • Emotional or mental health issues. Depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder can result from any life-threatening experience, such as a serious accident or emotional trauma. “A lengthy stay in a hospital ICU -- especially during a global pandemic -- can affect our brain in much the same way,” Merker said.
  • Changes in behavior or personality. This can include increased withdrawal, aggressiveness, irritability, sudden anger or concern over minor things, or unusual sleeping habits. “These changes are serious, especially when they impact your day-to-day functioning or ability to work,” Merker said.

What patients can do to heal

If you have been in the ICU and just don’t feel like yourself, Merker recommends writing down your symptoms and talking with your primary care doctor. They can refer you to the Henry Ford Post-ICU Brain Health Clinic for a thorough evaluation, which may help pinpoint the cause of your symptoms.

It’s not only patients who are affected by hospitalizations. Family members often fill the important role of caregiver during a loved one’s long illness. Caregivers also experience increased stress, fatigue, depression and burnout -- the effects of which can last long after their family member leaves the hospital, Merker said.

“Luckily, many of these brain health issues can benefit from treatments such as talk therapy, medication and skills training, where patients learn ways to improve thinking and daily functioning,” said Merker.

Brain health evaluations at Henry Ford

Diagnosing brain health issues is done by a team of board-certified neuropsychologists who specialize in the study of brain function and how it relates to behavior, emotion and thinking.

“Our goal is to maximize the patient’s recovery by diagnosing any underlying brain health condition and recommending treatments that can reduce or manage their symptoms,” Merker said.

In Henry Ford’s Post-ICU Brain Health Clinic, trained neuropsychologists evaluate older adults who have had an ICU stay to diagnose any issues. Evaluations are performed over two, half-day sessions, via online video visits and in-person clinic appointments. The results, diagnosis and treatment recommendations are shared with patients and family members.

Evaluation services are also available for caregivers ages 55 and up who are experiencing ongoing issues after a loved one’s hospitalization.

To find out more about the Henry Ford Post-ICU Brain Health Clinic, tap or click here, or call 313-874-4846.

The Henry Ford Post-ICU Brain Health Clinic is supported by the Healthy Aging Grant provided through the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.