Dementia Vs. Delirium

Dementia Vs. Delirium

By Lauren O’Desky, Oasis Senior Advisors Milwaukee

As you age, you can become more vulnerable to specific diseases or conditions. For example, older adults are more likely to have glaucoma or arthritis. Age also increases the chance for older adults to get dementia. However, not every senior who experiences memory deficits could be living with dementia.

Dementia and delirium can present similarly, especially for loved ones who are not available to check in on their aging parents daily. However, the two conditions are treated quite differently. Here’s what you need to know about dementia and delirium, and how to get the correct diagnosis and treatment plan.

What is dementia?

The World Health Organization reports that approximately 50 million people worldwide are living with dementia, with more than 10 million new cases diagnosed annually. Many people think that Alzheimer’s Disease is the same as dementia, but Alzheimer’s Disease is only one type of dementia. There are many different kinds of dementia, including vascular dementia, Pick’s Disease, or Lewy Body.

Each disease that falls under the dementia umbrella shares certain hallmarks. For example, dementia is a syndrome that is progressive and includes a deterioration in memory or judgment that directly affects daily life. Dementia happens over time, and losses can consist of verbal ability, mobility, and other cognitive abilities.

What is delirium?

Delirium is similar to dementia in that it affects memory and judgment. However, it is not slowly progressive; it appears acutely. The Mayo Clinic reports that delirium is rapid, coming on in a few hours or days. People living with delirium are severely confused and unaware of their environment.

Delirium in seniors specifically can be caused by a variety of factors. For example, infections like a urinary tract infection can lead to delirium, as can a stroke or other brain event. Delirium can also follow a new medication, a fever, anesthesia used during an outpatient procedure, mental illness, isolation, or even dehydration.

People with dementia can also have delirium and could become even more confused rapidly. This acute change is not consistent with the normal progression of dementia and should be reviewed by a neurologist.

Getting the Best Diagnosis

The good news is that delirium can be reversed or cured with the correct treatment. The bad news is doctors can misdiagnose confused seniors that visit as having dementia. Even though they could just be experiencing delirium. You can advocate for your loved one by talking about:

  • Duration of the confusion: If your loved one woke up confused today but was not confused yesterday, it is most likely delirium. Share this observation with medical professionals so they can determine when the onset of the confusion happened.
  • Consciousness: One potential hallmark of delirium is the inability to stay awake. People who are experiencing delirium can often fall asleep without warning. Seniors living with dementia remain alert throughout their day.
  • New medication or health concerns: If your loved one recently started a new medication, had a fever or illness, or has been complaining about new symptoms recently, share these with medical professionals during the assessment.

Next Steps

If your loved one has a diagnosis of dementia or delirium, it is essential to follow up appropriately with a neurologist for treatment. Delirium can be a compounding condition for seniors living alone at home and could return without proper treatment and support. Similarly, dementia requires the right combination of support and resources for the person to stay safe and healthy.

The team at Oasis Senior Advisors have decades of experience walking through dementia and delirium with seniors throughout the greater Austin area. We would be honored to share our expertise and guidance with you and your loved one. Call us to tell us more about your situation today.