Cases That Test Your Skills

Subtle cognitive decline in a patient with depression and anxiety

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After several months of subtle cognitive decline, Mr. M, age 53, has a panic attack and presents to the ED. He has a history of major depressive disorder and anxiety. What is the correct diagnosis?



CASE Anxious and confused

Mr. M, age 53, a surgeon, presents to the emergency department (ED) following a panic attack and concerns from his staff that he appears confused. Specifically, staff members report that in the past 4 months, Mr. M was observed having problems completing some postoperative tasks related to chart documentation. Mr. M has a history of major depressive disorder (MDD), hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and type 2 diabetes.

HISTORY A long-standing diagnosis of depression

Mr. M reports that 30 years ago, he received care from a psychiatrist to address symptoms of MDD. He says that around the time he arrived at the ED, he had noticed subtle but gradual changes in his cognition, which led him to skip words and often struggle to find the correct words. These episodes left him confused. Mr. M started getting anxious about these cognitive issues because they disrupted his work and forced him to reduce his duties. He does not have any known family history of mental illness, is single, and lives alone.

EVALUATION After stroke is ruled out, a psychiatric workup

In the ED, a comprehensive exam rules out an acute cerebrovascular event. A neurologic evaluation notes some delay in processing information and observes Mr. M having difficulty following simple commands. Laboratory investigations, including a comprehensive metabolic panel, are unremarkable. An MRI of Mr. M’s brain, with and without contrast, notes no acute findings. He is discharged from the ED with a diagnosis of MDD.

Before he presented to the ED, Mr. M’s medication regimen included duloxetine 60 mg/d, buspirone 10 mg 3 times a day, and aripiprazole 5 mg/d for MDD and anxiety. After the ED visit, Mr. M’s physician refers him to an outpatient psychiatrist for management of worsening depression and panic attacks. During the psychiatrist’s evaluation, Mr. M reports a decreased interest in activities, decreased motivation, being easily fatigued, and having poor sleep. He denies having a depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, or having problems with his appetite. He also denies suicidal thoughts, both past and present.

Mr. M describes his mood as anxious, primarily surrounding his recent cognitive changes. He does not have a substance use disorder, psychotic illness, mania or hypomania, posttraumatic stress disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. He reports adherence to his psychiatric medications. A mental status exam reveals Mr. M to be anxious. His attention is not well sustained, and he has difficulty describing details of his cognitive struggles, providing vague descriptions such as “skipping thought” and “skipping words.” Mr. M’s affect is congruent to his mood with some restriction and the psychiatrist notes that he is experiencing thought latency, poverty of content of thoughts, word-finding difficulties, and circumlocution. Mr. M denies any perceptual abnormalities, and there is no evidence of delusions.

The authors’ observations

Mr. M’s symptoms are significant for subacute cognitive decline that is subtle but gradual and can be easily missed, especially in the beginning. Though his ED evaluation—including brain imaging—ruled out acute or focal neurologic findings and his primary psychiatric presentation was anxiety, Mr. M’s medical history and mental status exam were suggestive of cognitive deficits.

Collateral information was obtained from his work colleagues, which confirmed both cognitive problems and comorbid anxiety. Additionally, given Mr. M’s high cognitive baseline as a surgeon, the new-onset cognitive changes over 4 months warranted further cognitive and neurologic evaluation. There are many causes of cognitive impairment (vascular, cancer, infection, autoimmune, medications, substances or toxins, neurodegenerative, psychiatric, vitamin deficiencies), all of which need to be considered in a patient with a nonspecific presentation such as Mr. M’s. The psychiatrist confirmed Mr. M’s current medication regimen, and discussed tapering aripiprazole while continuing duloxetine and buspirone.

Continue to: EVALUATION A closer look at cognitive deficits


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