Delirium vs Dementia – The Similarities, The Differences and Why You Should Care

Wondering if you or a loved one is suffering from dementia, delirium or both?

Not sure what the difference between delirium vs dementia even is?

Want a quick and clear understanding of the differences, symptoms, etc. of each?

If you answered “yes” to any or all of the above, you’re in the right place. Those questions and more about delirium and dementia are answered (in plain English!) below.

First, just a quick overview of what these terms actually mean…

Delirium vs Dementia and “Brain Fog”

Dementia and delirium both affect the brain. They are the two most common causes of what’s called “cognitive dysfunction”.

Also known as “Brain Fog”, cognitive dysfunction is the loss of brain functions such as the ability to acquire, retain, and process information or knowledge in a normal way.

However, dementia and delirium are very different.

Dementia is a term used to describe a group of symptoms. One of the main symptoms being memory loss. (For a more detailed understanding of dementia, read our article “What Is Dementia” here.)

Delirium, on the other hand, is a specific medical condition that causes a state of confusion.

Let’s Focus On Dementia For A Minute

There are a number of symptoms those with dementia will have as it progresses. If you’ve cared for someone with dementia, you’ve probably noticed how their mood, abilities and behavior can vary throughout the day.

Someone with dementia will have a number of symptoms including memory loss, confusion, sudden mood changes, physical pain and others. One of the problems is that many of these symptoms overlap with serious mental illnesses like delirium.

Okay, So How Does Delirium Fit In?

Delirium results in confusion as well as other disruptions in thinking and behavior. This includes changes in activity level, mood, attention and perception.

Older adults with dementia are prone to delirium, but the condition can affect seniors without dementia too.

All this makes IDing delirium difficult because even medical experts may not recognize delirium in someone with dementia because the symptoms are so similar.

One big difference between the two to look for is the progression of the conditions.

Dementia occurs gradually over time.

Delirium happens suddenly. And the confusion of delirium will often fluctuate wildly throughout the day. It may make it impossible to speak coherently or cause sudden drowsiness.

What Causes Delirium?

Here are a number of the most common causes of delirium…

  • Bleeding in the brain
  • Stroke
  • An acute illness such as the flu or a urinary tract infection
  • Adverse reaction to a medication or a bad mix of medications, drugs and/or alcohol

If you think your loved one is showing signs of delirium, you should contact a medical professional immediately. It may be the first sign they’ve having a bad reaction to a medication (or mix of medications) they’re taking.

After calling the doctor, you can help reduce the symptoms by creating a quiet, calm environment that helps put them at ease. You do not want to overwhelm or overstimulate someone with delirium (or dementia, for that matter).

How To Help a Loved One Who Has Dementia and/or Delirium

It’s hard to tell the symptoms of dementia and other mental illnesses like dementia apart. As mentioned in this article already, even the medical pros can struggle with this.

The most important thing you, as a caregiver, can do is keep a record of any emotional, behavioral and cognitive changes in your loved one. And then report any new symptoms – as soon as you notice them – to their medical caregivers. Doing so is essential to getting an accurate diagnosis.

While there is no cure for dementia yet, it is possible to treat and reverse delirium. And getting an accurate diagnosis of delirium is essential to getting your loved one relief from the confusion and other symptoms caused by the condition.

One comment

  1. I am caring for a patient right now that has dementia. She’s very lonely as well. She is virtually no family that is living any longer. She’s able to take walks in a assisted living building, but does not allow her self out of her room when her caregivers are not there (She has Medicaid caregivers 80 hours per month which calculates to about three hours most days, two hours on a few other days during the week). She has her walker and is safe in her building, can walk on her own with her walker, can go see her friends in the building (approximately 50 of them). She says she will not go out of her room because she is afraid that she will have urinary incontinence while she’s visiting her friends. What more should the caregiver do than to encourage her to use the bathroom frequently while visiting and that her friends want to see her. Her friends in the building have encouraged her also to do this while she is visiting with them in their apartments.

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