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 delirium and dementia.
Delirium is a mental state that affects cognitive function, impairing attention, thinking ability, and alertness. Delirium is not a disease — the term is often used to described mental confusion as a result of different conditions or contributing factors, such as chronic illness, medication side effects, infections, and alcohol or drug intoxication.
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People with dementia and those experiencing delirium often 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, usually 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 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.
Anyone can experience delirium symptoms as a result of illness or intoxication. In older adults, common causes of delirium include:
While only a doctor can tell what’s causing your loved one’s symptoms, there are certain key differences between dementia and delirium symptoms:
If your loved one has dementia or delirium symptoms, the best way to get an accurate diagnosis is to see their doctor. The doctor will perform a physical exam and review your parent’s medical and family history. They may also recommend laboratory and imaging tests, such as urine or blood tests, a CT scan, or MRI.
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.
If your loved one seems confused, talk to their doctor. It’s important to know that delirium usually is a sign of a serious medical problem that requires immediate medical care.
Merck Manual. “Delirium.”
Lippman S, Perugula ML. “Delirium or dementia?”
Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Dementia and delirium.”
Angelike Gaunt is a content strategist at A Place for Mom. She’s developed health content for consumers and medical professionals at major health care organizations, including Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the University of Kansas Health System. She’s passionate about developing accessible content to simplify complex health topics.