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J Geriatr Psychiatry Neurol. 2016 Nov;29(6):320-327. doi: 10.1177/0891988716666380. Epub 2016 Sep 21.

Preoperative Cognitive Performance Dominates Risk for Delirium Among Older Adults.

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1 Brown University, Providence, RI, USA.
2 Harvard Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, MA, USA.
3 Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA.
4 Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA.
5 Hebrew SeniorLife, Boston, MA, USA.



Cognitive impairment is a well-recognized risk factor for delirium. Our goal was to determine whether the level of cognitive performance across the nondemented cognitive ability spectrum is correlated with delirium risk and to gauge the importance of cognition relative to other known risk factors for delirium.


The Successful Aging after Elective Surgery study enrolled 566 adults aged ≥70 years scheduled for major surgery. Patients were assessed preoperatively and daily during hospitalization for the occurrence of delirium using the Confusion Assessment Method. Cognitive function was assessed preoperatively with an 11-test neuropsychological battery combined into a composite score for general cognitive performance (GCP). We examined the risk for delirium attributable to GCP, as well as demographic factors, vocabulary ability, and informant-rated cognitive decline, and compared the strength of association with risk factors identified in a previously published delirium prediction rule for delirium.


Delirium occurred in 135 (24%) patients. Lower GCP score was strongly and linearly predictive of delirium risk (relative risk = 2.0 per each half standard deviation difference in GCP score, 95% confidence interval, 1.5-2.5). This effect was not attenuated by statistical adjustment for demographics, vocabulary ability, and informant-rated cognitive decline. The effect was stronger than, and largely independent from, both standard delirium risk factors and comorbidity.


Risk of delirium is linearly and strongly related to presurgical cognitive performance level even at levels above the population median, which would be considered unimpaired.


cognitive impairment; delirium; epidemiology

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