How a stay in intensive care can affect the brain


After a long stay in a hospital intensive care unit (ICU), some people experience cognitive, emotional, or behavioral problems that persist for weeks or months.

It’s a worrying problem doctors often see in older patients – and especially since so many people have been in intensive care with severe and potentially fatal cases of COVID-19.

“In some cases, it takes a long time to get back to normal because of the number of serious illnesses the body and brain go through, especially in the elderly,” said Dr Brad Merker, neuropsychologist at Henry Ford Health System and Director of the Post-ICU Brain Health Clinic.

To diagnose and treat neurological problems a person might experience after a hospital stay, Henry Ford established the Post-ICU Brain Health Clinic. The clinic offers specialized testing and assessment services to people aged 55 and over to diagnose any underlying brain health problem.

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Impact on brain health after long hospitalizations

After a long hospital stay in intensive care, some older people may develop post-ICU syndrome, or PICS. People with PICS may experience a variety of problems, including:

  • Cognitive problems. Some people experience what they describe as “brain fog”. This is usually related to cognitive difficulties, such as confusion, problems with attention, impaired thinking or reasoning, reduced concentration, or short-term memory loss.

  • Emotional or mental health problems. Depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder can result from any life-threatening experience, such as a serious accident or emotional trauma. “A long stay in an intensive care unit in a hospital – especially during a global pandemic – can affect our brains in much the same way,” Merker said.

  • Changes in behavior or personality. This can include increased withdrawal, aggression, irritability, sudden anger or worry about minor things, or unusual sleeping patterns. “These changes are serious, especially when they impact your day-to-day functioning or your ability to work,” Merker said.

What patients can do to heal

If you’ve been in intensive care and don’t feel like yourself, Merker recommends writing down your symptoms and speaking with your family doctor. They may refer you to the Henry Ford Post-ICU Brain Health Clinic for a further evaluation, which can help identify the cause of your symptoms.

It is not just patients who are affected by hospitalizations. Family members often fulfill the important role of caregiver during the long illness of a loved one. Caregivers also experience increased stress, fatigue, depression and burnout – the effects of which can last long after the family member is discharged from the hospital, Merker said.

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

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Henry Ford’s brain health assessments

The diagnosis of brain health problems is made by a team of certified neuropsychologists specializing in the study of brain function and its links with behavior, emotions and thinking.

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

At Henry Ford’s Post-ICU Brain Health Clinic, trained neuropsychologists assess older people who have been in intensive care to diagnose any problems. Assessments are performed over two half-day sessions, via online video tours and clinic appointments. Results, diagnosis and treatment recommendations are shared with patients and their families.

Assessment services are also available for caregivers aged 55 and over who experience persistent problems after a loved one is hospitalized.

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

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


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