Half of all women will develop urinary tract infections (UTIs) in their lifetime. UTIs account for about 8.3 million doctor visits each year as they rank as the body’s second most common infection, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. So it seems like UTIs are harmless if they’re so common, right? Wrong.
While a urinary tract infection may be easy to diagnose in a younger woman, an elderly woman’s UTI rarely causes clear symptoms—and may not involve any pain or discomfort. And believe it or not—in addition to being a leading cause of sepsis, a potentially life-threatening infection—UTIs contribute to dementia diseases by making them worse. “A bladder infection places stress on the body,” says Dr. Mary Ann Forciea, an associate clinical professor for the University of Pennsylvania Health System. That stress can result in confusion and abrupt changes in behavior in older adults with an elderly urinary tract infection. And for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or other dementia, “any kind of stress, physical or emotional, will often make dementia temporarily worse,” Forciea says.
A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors talk to hundreds of families each year and have discovered that many families have not heard of the connection between dementia and UTIs. “When a family calls me and tells me that mom’s dementia has suddenly increased over the last month or that someone is suddenly showing signs of dementia that just started in the last two weeks, I always recommend going to the doctor for a check. Obviously other things can cause this, but often it is simply a urinary tract infection that can be handled with antibiotics. It’s an easy test for a doctor to do. Believe it or not, I’ve even had ER doctors who were unaware of this behavior correlation and missed checking for this” says Outreach Advisor, Melissa Pratt.
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This unlikely connection is definitely something people should be aware of; especially those with senior citizens in their life. Understanding the correlation between the two and learning how to diagnose a UTI in a senior citizen are important steps in this process.
Understanding what a UTI is can help us identify and understand why they’re so harmful in the elderly. Essentially, a UTI is an infection that typically occurs when bacteria enters the urinary tract through the urethra and begin to multiply in the bladder. Your urinary system is composed of the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra, so any of those areas can become infected, but most infections involve the lower urinary tract—the bladder and the urethra. If a UTI goes untreated, the infection can reach the kidneys and create an infection in the bloodstream.
When this happens to a senior citizen, an onset of problems can occur as the immune system changes with aging and is unable to prevent cyclical health problems. First, UTIs are difficult to diagnose in a senior citizen. And second, the stress the UTI places on the body puts too much burden on the immune system. If the senior citizen already suffers from a disease or impairment, that discomfort is only heightened as the immune system can only handle so much.
Since urinary tract infections are a big problem in the senior population, education on identifying them and treating them is important. Below are some common warning signs of a UTI in a senior citizen: