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Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2012 Apr;20(4):306-16. doi: 10.1097/JGP.0b013e3182436987.

Undetected cognitive impairment and decision-making capacity in patients receiving hospice care.

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SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology, San Diego, CA 92103, USA.



: Cognitive dysfunction is common in patients with advanced, life-threatening illness and can be attributed to a variety of factors (e.g., advanced age, opiate medication). Such dysfunction likely affects decisional capacity, which is a crucial consideration as the end-of-life approaches and patients face multiple choices regarding treatment, family, and estate planning. This study examined the prevalence of cognitive impairment and its impact on decision-making abilities among hospice patients with neither a chart diagnosis of a cognitive disorder nor clinically apparent cognitive impairment (e.g., delirium, unresponsiveness).


: A total of 110 participants receiving hospice services completed a 1-hour neuropsychological battery, a measure of decisional capacity, and accompanying interviews.


: In general, participants were mildly impaired on measures of verbal learning, verbal memory, and verbal fluency; 54% of the sample was classified as having significant, previously undetected cognitive impairment. These individuals performed significantly worse than the other participants on all neuropsychological and decisional capacity measures, with effect sizes ranging from medium to very large (0.43-2.70). A number of verbal abilities as well as global cognitive functioning significantly predicted decision-making capacity.


: Despite an absence of documented or clinically obvious impairment, more than half of the sample had significant cognitive impairments. Assessment of cognition in hospice patients is warranted, including assessment of verbal abilities that may interfere with understanding or reasoning related to treatment decisions. Identification of patients at risk for impaired cognition and decision making may lead to effective interventions to improve decision making and honor the wishes of patients and families.

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