Do Memory Problems Worsen After Being Hospitalized?

By: Dr. Pascale Michelon

It is common to hear stories about people who were fine until they went to the hospital and after that seemed to deteriorate (increased memory lapses and confusion). Is this anecdotal evidence or is there any truth in such scenario?

In a recent study 1,870 adults over the age of 65 were interviewed at 3-year intervals for up to 12 years. The interview allowed the researchers to assess global cognitive functioning as well as specific measures of memory and executive functions (i.e., abilities to plan, solve problem, inhibit irrelevant information and adapt).
1,335 participants (71%) were hospitalized at least once during the study.

On average, memory performance and thinking skills decline slightly as they age. In the study, researchers found that people’s overall scores declined twice as fast after a first hospital stay, compared either to their previous rate before the hospital stay or to people who were not admitted to the hospital.
The acceleration in cognitive decline after hospitalization was more than three times faster in terms of memory performance and 1.5 times faster in terms of executive functions.
The results stayed the same even after considering factors such as severe illness, longer hospital stay and older age.

What causes the accelerated decline is not clear so far. There are probably more than one factor involved and more research is needed. Of note, some people do not show such accelerated decline. Trying to understand why could be interesting.
These results show that we may have to rethink hospital stays. Keeping in mind cognitive health, in addition to physical health, may become a priority. This may include encouraging patients to move around more, if possible exercise, or merely sit in a chair (rather than stay in bed) as well as socialize more. Indeed physical exercise and socialization are two pillars of brain health.


Wilson, R. S., et al. (2012). Cognitive decline after hospitalization in a community population of older persons. Neurology, Published online before print March 21, 2012, doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e31824d5894.

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