A lot of people know the author of Sherlock Holmes is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but he was actually Dr Arthur Conan Doyle before he became a writer. He used the medical approach at the time—and that was to be a good detective. This is the type of model we need to think about when we are working with patients who have an underlying major neurocognitive order such as Alzheimer disease with associated agitation. You have to be a good detective to look at all the different potential causes, so I would like to focus specifically on what causes agitation and few tips on how you can get at that.
Keep in mind that by virtue of the fact that someone is suffering from a neurocognitive disorder, they have a brain that is which is damaged. If you look at it on the level of neurocircuitry, a person’s ability to regulate their affect is impaired, their executive function is impaired, and so this in of itself is sufficient to explain why a lot of people end up having exaggerated or inappropriate or disorganized responses to stress given those changes. In addition, we see that some of the key brain nuclei that are involved in the regulation of cognition or mood or behavior such as the serotonergic and dopaminergic systems are also impaired. Again, this also provides a setting for why we see agitated behaviors.
Major factors causing agitation
Clinicians look for several different categories of causes and triggers. One would certainly be medical factors, some either acute or underlying disease state that is impairing brain function. One of the most common causes would be infection, and related to that, delirium. We also look for psychiatric illness. There might be an underlying depression; there could be anxiety, panic attacks, and psychosis which are driving the agitation. We have to look at different psychological factors. Someone may be feeling very stressed out in their environment. There might be an unmet need: are they hungry, thirsty, over-stimulated?
It may be that the caregiver is not competent or is overwhelmed or burned out and so they are not providing the right amount of care or the care they are providing is stimulating agitation in the patient. Finally, we have to look at medication-related issues. Certainly, many different medications (ie, narcotics, steroids), as well as sedating medications (which we think might be helping to treat pain or even relax the person), can actually worsen brain function and could also be associated with agitation.
Dr Agronin is a geriatric psychiatrist and currently serves as the Senior Vice President for Behavioral Health and the Chief Medical office at MIND Institute at Miami Jewish Health in Miami, FL. He is the author of The Dementia Caregiver: A Guide to Caring for Someone with Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Neurocognitive Disorders.