Any trip to the hospital can stress you out. The hubbub of people constantly in motion. The noises of the medical machinery. Anxiety about your health problems…

And when you’re hospitalized you rarely get to relax: Your sleep is constantly interrupted. You may be besieged by having blood withdrawn and a string of other medical tests.

In the middle of all this commotion, there’s one part of your body that may be especially endangered: your brain. . .

Hospitalization, particularly if you are in your 60s or older, can give rise to delirium – a sudden state of panicked confusion, disorientation and even hallucinations.

Going through a spell of delirium poses serious risk to your thinking processes. It can make you more vulnerable to developing Alzheimer’s disease (or another form of dementia) later on. On top of that, it increases your risk of prematurely dying.

This is not a minor problem. It affects seven million patients of all ages every year. But there are important measures you can and should take to lower your risk.

Delirium Hides in Plain Sight

The medical profession is still struggling to get a handle on delirium – how to prevent it, how to treat it and even how to identify it when it happens. According to researchers, two out of three doctors and two out of three nurses can’t even reliably recognize it in their patients.1

That’s a scary fact when you consider that anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of very sick hospital patients experience delirium, according to some estimates. And the number rises to as many as four out of five patients who are put on a ventilator.2

There’s no way to tell how long an episode of delirium will last. But the longer this condition persists, the greater the risk of dying.3 Added to that, according to Harvard researchers, experiencing delirium can plunge you into a vortex of memory loss after being in the hospital. The researchers say it means your brain starts aging four times faster.4

With all that in mind, there are some basic measures you should take to lower the risk of suffering delirium during a hospital stay. The first thing to do is always have a family member or friend by your side while you are in the hospital. A familiar face and someone to help or explain what’s happening to you can help keep you grounded in reality.

If you have to go into the hospital for a broken hip or other fracture, experts recommend:5

  • Have the hospital staff give you a pain-reliever as soon as possible to ease your discomfort.
  • If you’re to undergo surgery, urge the hospital to operate within 48 hours of your arrival at the hospital.
  • After you get out of the hospital, start intensive physical therapy as soon as you can.

And for any hospital visit:6

  • Instruct the person with you to remind you, after your procedure, where you are and what day it is after you regain consciousness. They should tell you this information repeatedly.
  • Enlist your companion as your intermediary to help you get a full night’s sleep. Interrupted sleep increases your chances of delirium.
  • While you are in the hospital, drink a lot of water and stay fully hydrated.
  • If you wear glasses or need a hearing aid, make sure you have access to them and use them.

Avoid Anesthesia

The use of anesthesia is another potential mind-altering problem when you’re in the hospital. Many experts recommend that older folks avoid general anesthesia whenever possible. My advice is to try healthy lifestyle measures to deal with physical problems rather than turning to surgery as your first option.

Too many people rush into elective surgery, not knowing the damaging effects general anesthesia can have on cognition.

If you need an operation, see if your surgeon can use local anesthesia instead of putting you out with general anesthesia. Your brain will thank you!