Study Shows Delirium Can Signal Presence of COVID-19 in Asymptomatic Older Patients Admitted to the Emergency Department

Older persons admitted to EDs and subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19 often present with delirium when showing no other typical COVID symptoms.

Spotlight on

BOSTON – A study published today in JAMA Network Open/Emergency Medicine supports evidence that older persons admitted to emergency departments (ED), and subsequently diagnosed positive for COVID-19, often present with delirium when they show no other typical COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever and cough. Sharon K. Inouye, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the Aging Brain Center in the Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, is senior author on the study. Co-first authors include Maura Kennedy, M.D., Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital and Benjamin K. Helfand, M.D., Ph.D. (Cand.), University of Massachusetts Medical School and Warren Alpert Medical School, Brown University.

Although COVID-19 poses a risk at all ages, adults aged 65 years and older are at greatest risk of severe disease, hospitalization, intensive care use, and death. Persons older than 65 years comprise 16 percent of the United States population yet have accounted for more than 80 percent of deaths in the U.S. Delirium is an acute state of confusion, characterized by an altered level of consciousness, disorientation, inattention, and other cognitive disturbances. Beyond COVID-19, delirium is known to be a common symptom in older adults with severe disease in the ED and is associated with extended hospitalization, and increased morbidity and mortality. Despite the threat delirium poses to older ED patients, it is undetected in two-thirds of cases. 

Researchers involved in the study examined 817 patients 65 or older admitted to the ED and who were diagnosed with COVID-19. They found almost a third had delirium at the time they were seen in the ED. A delirium diagnosis was the main presenting symptom for 16 percent of those patients, and 37 percent had no typical COVID-19 symptoms; delirium was the sixth most common presenting symptoms in all patients. These findings suggest the clinical importance of including delirium on checklists of presenting signs and symptoms of COVID-19 that guide screening, testing, and evaluation.

According to Dr. Inouye, “This study demonstrates that delirium is not only a common symptom of COVID-19, but also may be the leading and possibly sole symptom in older persons. Thus, delirium should be considered an important presenting symptom of COVID-19.”

Additional collaborating institutions on the study include:

  • St. Mary Mercy Livonia Hospital
  • Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
  • Maine Medical Center
  • Brigham and Women’s Hospital 
  • Yale School of Medicine
  • University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Medicine. 

About the Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research
Scientists at the Marcus Institute seek to transform the human experience of aging by conducting research that will ensure a life of health, dignity, and productivity into advanced age. The Marcus Institute carries out rigorous studies that discover the mechanisms of age-related disease and disability; lead to the prevention, treatment, and cure of disease; advance the standard of care for older people; and inform public decision-making.

About Hebrew SeniorLife
Hebrew SeniorLife, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, is a national senior services leader uniquely dedicated to rethinking, researching, and redefining the possibilities of aging. Hebrew SeniorLife cares for more than 3,000 seniors a day across six campuses throughout Greater Boston. Founded in 1903, Hebrew SeniorLife also conducts influential research into aging at the Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research and trains more than 1,000 geriatric care providers each year. For more information about Hebrew SeniorLife, visit our website or follow us on our blog, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Research Areas

A researcher at the Marcus Institute for Aging Research in Boston, MA studies MRI images of a human brain.

Brain Health

Through pioneering multidisciplinary research, the Marcus Institute is uncovering new answers to the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, delirium, and other changes to the brain.

Learn More