Awareness of the difference between dementia and delirium can help treat and often prevent serious illness. While both conditions may exhibit similar symptoms, the two conditions show difference in both origin and effect. In many cases, both disorders may be relative. Understanding the how they are similar and where they differ will allow you to determine what actions should be taken in a particular case.
Memory lapses are often a normal part of growing older, but there is a significant difference between a slip of the mind and more serious symptoms including confusion, difficulty with speech, disorientation, or the inability to concentrate. These more serious symptoms could point to a combination of medical diagnoses, and it’s important to talk with your doctor if you or a loved one are experiencing them.
Delirium is usually defined by an uncharacteristic degree of confusion. The condition may be brought on by mental or physical stress. The onset of delirium is usually somewhat rapid, making is possible to prevent sudden, or “acute confusion states”. Delirium is associated with a wide variety of symptoms, some of which can be identified incorrectly as the symptoms of dementia. Common signs can include:
- Memory lapses
- Inability to concentrate
- Difficulty with speech
- Trouble focusing or paying attention
Delirium can affect more than memory, altering the ability to concentrate and think clearly. Delirium is often preventable but it is also confused regularly with dementia, and even incorrectly diagnosed in a large number of cases. Searching for the root cause of the symptoms can be instrumental in identifying the difference between the two. Delirium can be caused by:
- Metabolic disorders
Some medications may contribute to delirium, so be sure to talk to your doctor about any pain medication, antihistamines, sleep medications, anti-anxiety or anti-depression drugs, asthma medication, or Parkinson’s medications that you may be taking.
There are cases in which delirium is a symptom of dementia. In such cases, delirium may not be preventable or treatable and may point to more serious health issues including stroke, Parkinson’s disease, or the general degradation of the aging brain.
Dementia is defined generally as ongoing, decreased mental ability that progresses in severity enough to affect your daily life. There are several forms of dementia, including:
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Huntington’s Disease
- Vascular Dementia
- Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB)
- Mixed Dementia
Each of these types of dementia is expressed by a unique set of symptoms that affect the brain differently. It’s important to obtain the right diagnosis of the cause of dementia – discuss the onset of your symtoms with your doctor and discuss ways to diagnose and treat your specific condition.
A notable difference between dementia and delirium is a gradual onset of symptoms, unlike the sudden onset of delirium. This allows diagnosis of dementia to be somewhat more focused. Diagnostic and cognitive testing can be useful to determine the presence of dementia and which form is present. MRI, CT scans, blood tests, and PET scans are helpful. Many clinicians will also administer the MMSE – the mini-mental state examination, the most common cognitive test. This test determines how much the impairment has progressed, assessing symptoms including:
- Long-term and short-term memory
- Ability to concentrate
- Speech and language abilities
- Ability to follow instructions
- Planning skills
- Attention span
Delirium often resolves as the patient recovers from an initial stress or cause of symptoms, but dementia treatment is determined by the form of the dementia, and will take longer to treat. Cognitive medications and therapy are often helpful in the management of dementia symptoms.
The following video explains the difference between delirium and dementia:
Understanding the difference between delirium and dementia can be an important tool to prevent, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions before they become crippling. Discuss how you feel with your doctors and caregivers as often as possible so that they can assess and help you manage your symptoms, and promote a happier, healthier brain.