Delirium is not associated with anticholinergic burden or polypharmacy in older patients on admission to an acute hospital: an observational case control study

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Colleges, School and Institutes


BACKGROUND: Older people are commonly prescribed multiple medications, including medications with anticholinergic effects. Polypharmacy and anticholinergic medications may be risk factors for the development of delirium.

METHODS: Patients from a medical admission unit who were over 70, with DSM-IV diagnosed delirium and patients without delirium, were investigated. Number of drugs prescribed on admission and anticholinergic burden using two scales (the Anticholinergic Cognitive Burden Scale [ACB] and the Anticholinergic Drug Scale [ADS]) were recorded from electronic prescribing records. The relationship and predictive ability of these were explored.

RESULTS: The sample included 125 patients with DSM-IV diagnosed delirium and 122 patients without delirium. The mean age of the sample was 84.0 years. The median number of drugs prescribed was 7: 79.8 % were prescribed ≥5 drugs and 29.0 % ≥10 drugs. The median ACB score was 1 and the median ADS score was 1.5. 73.4 % of patients had an ACB score of ≥1 and 73.0 % had a ADS score ≥1. There was no association between: number of drugs prescribed, rate of polypharmacy, rate of excessive polypharmacy, ACB score and ADS score, and a diagnosis of delirium on admission. Only acetylcholinesterase inhibitor use predicted delirium (OR 3.86, p = 0.04) and the number of drugs prescribed was negatively correlated with age (spearman rho = -0.18, p = 0.006).

CONCLUSION: Neither number of drugs prescribed, polypharmacy or anticholinergic burden were associated with delirium on admission, questioning the clinical usefulness of anticholinergic drug scales. Further research is needed to unpick fully the relationship between, drugs, anticholinergic burden, age, and prevalent delirium in older patients and whether there is any role for these scales in clinical practice.


Original languageEnglish
Article number162
JournalBMC Geriatrics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 21 Sep 2016


  • Delirium, Risk factor , Aged , Acetylcholine , Polypharmacy , Anticholinergic