As we age, the fitness of our brain declines. For many of us, we will experience something called dementia. While the average age of dementia onset is some four decades later (approximately age 80), it does not mean you cannot experience symptoms earlier.

Many confused seniors seek help for their symptoms and begin treatment. If it is not too late, doctors will investigate and begin testing. One of the diagnoses a doctor might consider is that delirium.

This article will compare dementia vs delirium. We will detail the differences and what they mean for your aging loved one.

What Is Dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological disorders that affect cognitive processes such as memory, language, communication, problem-solving, and judgment.

It is a non-specific, progressive brain disorder that negatively affects a person's brain functions and behaviors. Dementia is a degenerative disorder that profoundly impacts one's life and ability to function independently. As the disease progresses, it can lead to reduced independence with activities such as driving, dressing, eating, exercising, and interacting with others.

Ultimately, dementia affects a person's quality of life and can lead to changes in physical, cognitive, and social functioning.

What Is Delirium?

Delirium is a brain disorder characterized by sudden confusion, disturbed thinking, paranoia, and increased sensitivity to stimuli. It is most common in elderly people and people suffering from severe medical conditions such as stroke, heart attack, and even surgery.

It has been known to occur in elderly people with medical conditions like dehydration, infection, metabolic disturbances, or medication intoxication. Dementia, on the other hand, is a syndrome that involves gradual, long-term changes in memory, language, problem-solving, and judgment. 

Delirium can also be caused by infection, toxic exposure, withdrawal from alcohol and drugs, physical illness, and stress. Patients suffering from delirium often experience marked changes in their cognitive functioning and emotions.

Prolonged delirium can lead to serious complications and may even result in death. Early diagnosis and prompt treatment are essential in addressing delirium and preventing its complications.

Differences In Cause

The first thing you might think "Is dementia hereditary?". Well, there's more to that!

Dementia is caused by chronic brain damage, which happens over time and can stem from various causes, such as:

  • head injury
  • stroke
  • dementia disorders
  • certain neurological illnesses

A sudden and acute illness or event most commonly causes delirium. As such, delirium occurs over days or weeks rather than decades, like dementia.

Additionally, delirium can be caused by intoxication from substances such as:

  • alcohol
  • drugs
  • poor nutrition
  • dehydration

Therefore, it is important to note that the causes of dementia and delirium are very different, allowing for proper diagnosis and effective treatment.

Differences In Symptoms

Delirium typically causes dramatic and sudden changes in mental function and awareness, usually associated with more intense and volatile emotional changes. Symptoms of delirium also often include:

Conversely, dementia is a more gradual decline characterized by slower and more diffuse changes in cognition and is less likely to include hallucinations, agitation, or intense emotional changes. Individuals need to receive an accurate diagnosis, as the course of treatment is different for each condition.

Differences In Risk Factors

Delirium is often associated with an underlying medical cause and can occur at any age. The risk factors for delirium include:

  • severe illness
  • infection
  • drug use
  • surgery
  • hospitalization
  • dehydration
  • electrolyte imbalance
  • worsening vision
  • worsening hearing
  • advanced age

Delirium is reversible, whereas dementia is usually not. Therefore, a healthcare provider needs to differentiate between dementia vs delirium to diagnose and treat the patient correctly.

Dementia includes age, family history, and certain medical conditions such as:

  • stroke
  • high cholesterol
  • diabetes

On the other hand, delirium is an acute condition often related to a medical illness such as a urinary tract infection or an indirect result of a medical procedure such as anesthesia.

Differences In a Treatment Option

In general, the treatments for Delirium tend to involve using medications, such as antipsychotics, to help manage the symptoms. In the case of Dementia, the treatment plan tends to focus on preserving the patient's cognitive abilities, participating in activities that may reduce cognitive decline, and possibly taking medications to reduce anxiety and other symptoms.

In addition, for Dementia, non-medication treatments such as counseling, memory aids, and cognitive training can also be beneficial. Dementia and Delirium present unique challenges and require specialized treatment plans tailored to the individual patient's needs. 

Differences In Communication Abilities

Delirium patients show rapid and often drastic changes in their communication abilities due to the rapid changes in their mental state. At the same time, a patient with dementia may show slower changes in their communication abilities over time. Their communication abilities are still far more noticeably impaired.

Therefore, dementia patients may need more time and patience to understand and communicate. On the other hand, due to their rapidly changing mental state, delirium patients may require unexpected changes and an understanding of their rapidly changing mental abilities to communicate effectively.

Learn the Difference Between Dementia vs Delirium

In conclusion, dementia vs delirium are two distinct conditions that require medical attention. Dementia is characterized by a gradual memory and cognitive decline, whereas Delirium is an acute, sudden occurrence.

Understanding the differences between the two can lead to better treatment and quicker relief. Consult with your doctor to ensure a diagnosis and explore your best treatment options.

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