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Division of Geriatric Medicine and Meyers Primary Care Institute, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA, USA.
Delirium is an acute disorder of attention and cognition in elderly people (ie, those aged 65 years or older) that is common, serious, costly, under-recognised, and often fatal. A formal cognitive assessment and history of acute onset of symptoms are necessary for diagnosis. In view of the complex multifactorial causes of delirium, multicomponent non-pharmacological risk factor approaches are the most effective strategy for prevention. No convincing evidence shows that pharmacological prevention or treatment is effective. Drug reduction for sedation and analgesia and non-pharmacological approaches are recommended. Delirium offers opportunities to elucidate brain pathophysiology--it serves both as a marker of brain vulnerability with decreased reserve and as a potential mechanism for permanent cognitive damage. As a potent indicator of patients' safety, delirium provides a target for system-wide process improvements. Public health priorities include improvements in coding, reimbursement from insurers, and research funding, and widespread education for clinicians and the public about the importance of delirium.