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Detecting delirium superimposed on dementia: diagnostic accuracy of a simple combined arousal and attention testing procedure

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 May 2017

Sarah J. Richardson*
Institute of Neuroscience, 3rd floor Biomedical Research Building, Campus for Ageing and Vitality, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE4 5PL, UK
Daniel H. J. Davis
University College London, MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL, London, UK
Giuseppe Bellelli
School of Medicine and Surgery, University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, Italy
Wolfgang Hasemann
Practice Development in Nursing, University Hospital Basel, Basel, Switzerland
David Meagher
Graduate Entry Medical School, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland
Stefan H. Kreisel
Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy Bethel, Evangelisches Krankenhaus Bielefeld, Division of Geriatric Psychiatry, Bielefeld, Germany
Alasdair M. J. MacLullich
Edinburgh Delirium Research Group, Geriatric Medicine, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
Joaquim Cerejeira
Department of Psychiatry, Hospitais da Universidade de Coimbra, Coimbra, Portugal
Alessandro Morandi
Ancelle Hospital, Cremona, Italy Geriatrics Research Group, Brescia, Italy
Correspondence should be addressed to: Institute of Neuroscience, 3rd floor Biomedical Research Building, Campus for Ageing and Vitality, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE4 5PL, UK. Phone: +44 0191 2081314. Email:



Detecting delirium superimposed on dementia (DSD) can be challenging because assessment partly relies on cognitive tests that may be abnormal in both conditions. We hypothesized that a combined arousal and attention testing procedure would accurately detect DSD.


Patients aged ≥70 years were recruited from five hospitals across Europe. Delirium was diagnosed by physicians using DSM-5 criteria using information from nurses, carers, and medical records. Dementia was ascertained by the Informant Questionnaire on Cognitive Decline in the Elderly. Arousal was measured using the Observational Scale of Level of Arousal (OSLA), which assesses eye opening, eye contact, posture, movement, and communication. Attention was measured by participants signaling each time an “A” was heard when “S-A-V-E-A-H-A-A-R-T” was read out.


The sample included 114 persons (mean age 82 years (SD 7); 54% women). Dementia alone was present in 25% (n = 28), delirium alone in 18% (n = 21), DSD in 27% (n = 31), and neither in 30% (n = 34). Arousal and attention was assessed in n = 109 (96%). Using OSLA, 83% participants were correctly identified as having delirium (sensitivity 85%, specificity 82%, AUROC 0.92). The attention task correctly classified 76% of participants with delirium (sensitivity 90%, specificity 64%, AUROC 0.80). Combining scores correctly classified 91% of participants with delirium (sensitivity 84%, specificity 92%, AUROC 0.94). Diagnostic accuracy remained high in the subgroup with dementia (93% correctly classified, sensitivity 94%, specificity 92%, AUROC 0.98).


This combined arousal–attention assessment to detect DSD was brief yet had high diagnostic accuracy. Such an approach could have clinical utility for diagnosing DSD.

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Copyright © International Psychogeriatric Association 2017 

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