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Delirium and dementia can often be confused because both conditions can cause a person to become cognitively confused and emotionally distressed. Each typically occur when some sort of trauma has taken place within the brain. Delirium is more prevalent in the elderly population, especially those who are vulnerable due to cognitive impairment. This is because the brain’s weakened state has less power to fight off health issues that trigger delirium. A young healthy person would typically have to be under extreme conditions to become delirious.

So, What Exactly is Delirium?

Delirium is an abrupt change in the brain characterized by confusion and disrupted attention that is usually temporary. Those who experience delirium may exhibit disordered speech and in some cases, hallucinations. It is most common among hospitalized elderly and those living in senior care facilities. Delirium can stem from a combination of factors, however, some of the most common causes for older adults include the following:

  • Chronic disease causing the brain to be susceptible
  • Alcohol or drug abuse/withdraw
  • Bacterial Infections/Sepsis (such as, UTI’s, pneumonia and skin infections)
  • Certain medications
  • Surgery or procedures that include anesthesia
  • Severe emotional stress
  • High fever
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Dehydration
  • Poisonous substances

Delirium warning signs:

  • Emotional disturbances
  • Behavioral disturbances (such as hyperactivity)
  • Poor thinking/cognitive skills
  • Reduced awareness of his or her environment
  • Hallucinations

How does it differ from Dementia?

Though delirium and dementia have similarities, delirium symptoms usually come about abruptly within a few hours or days and it isusually reversible if caught early and treated. Symptoms can fluctuate from day to day and hour to hour, being intense one moment and virtually unnoticeable the next. In contrast, dementia is a cognitive impairment that develops over a long period of time and is typically irreversible. These are two of the major differentiating factors between delirium and dementia, who’s symptoms do not typically “vanish” (though they can fluctuate).

Because both dementia and delirium can show themselves through mental confusion and behavioral changes, it can sometimes be difficult to notice in cases where the person already has dementia. One of the tell-tale signs that someone with dementia has delirium is if their confusion and or behavior seems to be troubling them twice as much as usual. A seemingly healthy adult can also experience delirium, though it is less common. Delirium can be a warning sign that other health issues are present.

Why is it important to know the difference?

Differentiating delirium from dementia can be critical in caring for an older adult. Your resident or loved one may have a medical emergency that needs immediate attention. Untreated delirium can lead to permanent problems and in some cases be fatal. Contact a health care provider immediately if you suspect your loved one is experiencing delirium or exhibiting signs of dementia.

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