Delirium and dementia are common causes of cognitive impairment in older adults. Although anyone can experience delirium symptoms, this mental disturbance is more common in seniors, affecting up to 50% of older adults at some point in life.
Dementia and delirium symptoms can be similar, so how do you know what’s causing your elderly loved one’s confusion? Read on to understand key differences between the two conditions.
Delirium is a mental state that affects cognitive function. It can impair attention, thinking ability, and alertness. Delirium is not a disease — the term is often used to describe mental confusion as a result of different conditions or contributing factors, such as chronic illness, medication side effects, infections, and alcohol or drug intoxication.
People with dementia and those experiencing delirium can both show signs of confusion and decreased awareness. Whether your family member has dementia or delirium, they may have difficulty following a conversation, may not understand where they are, or may not remember important facts, such as what day it is, where they live, or their loved ones’ names.
However, contrary to dementia symptoms which develop gradually over time, delirium symptoms occur suddenly, often within hours or days. Delirium symptoms usually indicate a serious, new problem that requires medical attention, especially in older adults.
If your aging loved one suddenly experiences one or more of the following symptoms, an immediate visit to the doctor or emergency room is warranted:
The good news is delirium symptoms are usually temporary and reversible. Once the cause of your loved one’s delirium is treated, symptoms often go away.
It can be difficult to distinguish between delirium and dementia. In some cases, older adults can have both. People with dementia may sometimes have delirium episodes, where they experience periods of extreme mood changes, hallucinations, and increased confusion.
However, although delirium is common in people with dementia, having delirium episodes doesn’t necessarily mean your loved one has dementia. Many things can cause delirium symptoms.
While only a doctor can tell what’s causing your loved one’s condition, there are certain key differences between delirium and dementia symptoms:
|Symptoms of delirium||Symptoms of dementia|
|Begin suddenly and develop quickly.||Begin gradually and progress over time.|
|Have a defined starting point.||Have an uncertain beginning point.|
|Are temporary and reversible.||Are permanent and worsen as the disease progresses.|
|Difficulty with attention is the main early, noticeable symptom.||Difficulty remembering recent events is the main early, noticeable symptom.|
|Slow, slurred speech is common during delirium episodes.||Speech problems associated with dementia usually consist of trouble putting thoughts into words, forgetting common words, or repeating words or phrases.|
Anyone can experience delirium symptoms as a result of illness or intoxication. The following are common causes of delirium in older adults:
The doctor will review your family member’s list of medications and ask about their symptoms, including changes in memory, thinking, and behavior. If the doctor suspects dementia, they may use specific cognitive assessment tools, such as the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE) or the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), to assess your loved one’s cognitive skills and memory.
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If your loved one seems confused, talk to their doctor. It’s important to know that delirium is usually a sign of a serious medical problem that requires immediate care.
Merck Manual. “Delirium.”
Lippman S, Perugula ML. “Delirium or dementia?”
Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Dementia and delirium.”