Delirium or Dementia? Know the Difference

Delirium and dementia are both frightening to sufferers and caregivers alike, and often manifest themselves in similar ways. However, the two conditions are very different, and mistaking one for the other can have serious adverse consequences. Learning to recognize the distinctions between dementia and delirium can ensure that the patient receives the best care possible in a timely manner.

Causes and Symptoms of Delirium 

Delirium is an acute condition. Symptoms often appear suddenly and cause dramatic behavior changes. Symptoms of delirium include hallucinations, nonsense speech, disorientation and difficulty following normal conversation. Delirium has a number of causes; finding the right cause is often the key to effective treatment. Common causes of delirium are listed below:

  • Acute illness such as influenza or infections
  • Brain injuries, including stroke and head trauma
  • Kidney or liver failure
  • Alcohol, narcotics or prescription drug withdrawal (the DTs or delirium tremens)
  • Adverse reactions to medication or multiple medications
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Malnutrition or dehydration

The good news is that in many cases, delirium can be reversed with timely and effective treatment. The bad news is delirium is often misdiagnosed. Even worse is that delirium can occur in combination with dementia — and that untreated delirium can deteriorate into dementia.



Causes and Symptoms of Dementia 

Unlike delirium, dementia occurs gradually, often going unnoticed until significant decline in cognitive function has occurred. Risk factors for dementia are listed below:

  • Age — the risk increases to up to 30% for seniors over age 85
  • Gender — Females are more prone than men, perhaps due to menopause-related hormonal changes
  • Genetic mutations that occur either early or late in life
  • Brain damage from alcoholism, AIDS, Alzheimer’s Disease or Parkinson’s Disease
  • Vascular damage from stroke, diabetes or high blood pressure

The most obvious symptoms of dementia involve memory loss. Except in rare cases, dementia is irreversible. Unfortunately, many dementia patients also develop delirium when they are hospitalized.


Suzette Lindemuth

Founder, Senior Living Systems


To learn more about dealing with delirium and dementia, and the Senior Living Systems philosophy of ageless living, contact us today!