Delirium vs. Dementia: Understanding the Difference 

Explore delirium vs. dementia: causes, symptoms, treatments, and risk factors, aiding in understanding, diagnosis, and care for loved ones.
Published on
March 12, 2024
Written by
Katie Wilkinson
Katie Wilkinson
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As our loved ones age, the brain's ability to function changes drastically, causing worries about conditions like delirium and dementia. What is the difference? It's easy to confuse these two terms, but each has different causes, symptoms, and treatments. 

What is dementia?

Dementia is a chronic, progressive condition marked by a decline in mental abilities like memory, speech, problem-solving, and decision-making skills. The condition is caused by several underlying conditions that damage or destroy brain cells, like Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia, and frontotemporal dementia.

Symptoms of dementia include:

  • Memory loss, especially problems with short-term memory
  • Difficulty finding or communicating words
  • Difficulty with visual and spatial abilities
  • Difficulty reasoning or problem-solving
  • Difficulty handling complex tasks
  • Difficulty with planning and organizing
  • Difficulty with coordination and motor functions
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Personality changes, including becoming irritable, suspicious, or fearful
  • Depression, anxiety, or apathy
  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Paranoia and hallucinations in later stages

Living with dementia can be challenging, both for the person with the condition and for their caregivers. What should you do if your loved one is showing symptoms of dementia? Speak with their doctor. Seek support and resources to manage the condition and maintain a high quality of life. Support includes medical and therapeutic interventions and practical support such as assistance with daily activities and access to community resources.

What is delirium?

On the other hand, delirium is an acute state with a sudden onset of confusion, disorientation, and changes in consciousness or behavior. It is often temporary and reversible if the underlying cause is identified and treated promptly.

Delirium can be caused by infections, medications, metabolic imbalances, traumatic brain injury, or illnesses affecting other organ systems. Untreated delirium leads to further complications. 

Symptoms of delirium include:

  • Sudden confusion or disorientation
  • Changes in alertness, fluctuating throughout the day
  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
  • Withdrawal or lethargy, especially in elderly patients
  • Rapid, unpredictable emotional changes
  • Hallucinations
  • Restlessness or agitation
  • Disorganized thinking
  • Memory problems
  • Sleep disturbances, including excessive sleepiness or nighttime confusion
  • Incoherent speech

Loved ones with pre-existing cognitive impairments, like dementia or Alzheimer's disease, have a higher risk of developing delirium, especially during hospitalization or acute onset illness.

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Delirium vs. dementia: understanding the difference

Knowing the differences between delirium and dementia helps caregivers provide appropriate care and treatment. As a family caregiver, you can help your loved one by learning more about these conditions and their symptoms. 

Onset of illness and root causes

Understanding the causes of dementia and delirium is crucial for diagnosis, management, and treatment. Each condition has a variety of causes, reflecting their different underlying pathologies.

Causes of dementia

Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells that affects their ability to communicate, which can affect thinking, behavior, and feelings. There are several types of dementia, and the causes vary depending on the type:

  • Alzheimer's disease: The most common cause of dementia, characterized by the buildup of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain.
  • Vascular dementia: Caused by damage to the vessels that supply blood to the brain, often after a stroke or due to chronic vascular issues.
  • Lewy Body Dementia: Associated with abnormal deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the brain (known as Lewy bodies).
  • Frontotemporal dementia: Involves damage to neurons in the frontal and/or temporal lobes of the brain, affecting personality, behavior, and language.
  • Mixed dementia: A condition in which changes of more than one type of dementia occur simultaneously in the brain.
  • Neurodegenerative disorders: Neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's disease dementia and Huntington's disease can lead to symptoms of dementia.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): Can lead to dementia symptoms, especially after repeated head traumas.
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease: A rare, degenerative, invariably fatal brain disorder.

Other factors and conditions can also contribute to or mimic dementia, such as thyroid problems, vitamin deficiencies, and chronic alcoholism.

Causes of delirium

Delirium is usually caused by one or more contributing factors, often related to acute illness or changes in metabolic balance. 

Common causes include:

  • Infections like urinary tract infections, pneumonia, or sepsis
  • Medication-induced mainly due to polypharmacy, changes in medication, or use of certain drugs like narcotics, sedatives, and some antidepressants
  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs, including benzodiazepines or barbiturates
  • Metabolic imbalances like electrolyte imbalances, hypoglycemia, or kidney or liver failure
  • Severe, chronic, or terminal illness, especially those affecting the brain, lungs, heart, or liver
  • Surgery or medical procedures: Post-operative delirium is common, especially in elderly patients or those with pre-existing cognitive impairments
  • Environmental factors like being in an ICU, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, or overload.
  • Acute neurological conditions, including stroke, brain hemorrhage, or meningitis

Identifying the specific causes of delirium is essential to treating the condition effectively. Unlike dementia, delirium is often reversible if the underlying cause is promptly addressed.

Risk factors

Understanding the risk factors for dementia and delirium can help in identifying individuals at higher risk and potentially in implementing preventive measures. While some risk factors overlap, others are unique to each condition due to their distinct natures and underlying causes.

Risk factors for dementia

  1. Age: The risk of developing most types of dementia increases significantly with age, especially after 65.
  2. Family history and genetics: A family history of dementia increases risk, with certain genetic factors linked to specific types of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease and frontotemporal dementia.
  3. Cardiovascular: High blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, and smoking can increase the risk of vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
  4. Head injuries: Severe or repeated head injuries are linked to a higher risk of certain types of dementia.
  5. Lifestyle and diet: Physical inactivity, poor diet, and excessive alcohol consumption can contribute to the risk of dementia.
  6. Social engagement and mental activityLower levels of social interaction and cognitive stimulation have been associated with a higher risk of dementia.
  7. Other health conditions: Conditions such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and chronic kidney disease can increase the risk of developing dementia.

Risk factors for delirium

  1. Advanced age: Older adults are particularly susceptible to delirium, especially those with pre-existing cognitive impairments.
  2. Dementia: Individuals with dementia are at a higher risk of delirium.
  3. Recent surgery or hospitalization: Especially in intensive care units (ICU) or after major surgery, the risk of delirium increases.
  4. Severe or chronic illness: Conditions affecting the brain (such as stroke or brain infections) and systemic diseases can predispose individuals to delirium.
  5. Medications: Use of certain medications, particularly sedatives, narcotics, and some types of psychoactive drugs, can increase the risk of delirium.
  6. Substance withdrawal: Withdrawal from alcohol, benzodiazepines, or other substances can trigger delirium.
  7. Sensory impairments: Vision or hearing loss can increase the risk of delirium, likely due to difficulties in processing environmental cues.
  8. Multiple medical procedures: Undergoing multiple surgeries or diagnostic tests, especially with general anesthesia, can heighten the risk of delirium.
  9. Infections and metabolic imbalances: Urinary tract infections, pneumonia, electrolyte imbalances, and severe dehydration are common triggers for delirium in susceptible individuals.

Shared risk factors

  • Age is a significant factor in the risk of delirium and dementia, with elderly patients being more susceptible.
  • Pre-existing cognitive impairment, such as dementia, increases the risk of delirium.
  • Chronic health conditions can contribute to the risk of delirium and dementia, emphasizing the importance of managing these conditions effectively.

Understanding these risk factors highlights the importance of a healthy lifestyle, regular medical check-ups, and prompt attention to changes in cognitive function or consciousness level, especially in at-risk populations. It also underscores the complexity of these conditions and the multifactorial influences on their development.

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Diagnosis 

The diagnosis of dementia and delirium involves a combination of clinical assessment, patient history, physical examination, and, sometimes, diagnostic tests. These processes help differentiate between the two conditions, which is crucial for effective treatment. 

The process may include:

  • Medical history: Gathering information about symptoms, medical history, family history, medications, and lifestyle factors.
  • Cognitive and neuropsychological tests: Assessing cognitive functions to determine the extent of impairment. Additionally, the Confusion Assessment Method (CAM) is commonly used to diagnose delirium.
  • Physical examination and laboratory tests: Blood tests, urinalysis, chest X-rays, and brain imaging may help identify or rule out other medical conditions that might cause or mimic dementia, such as thyroid disorders, vitamin deficiencies, or infections. They can also help identify underlying causes of delirium, such as infections, metabolic disorders, or organ dysfunction. 

For both conditions, involving specialists like neurologists, geriatricians, or psychiatrists may be necessary for diagnosis and management. Distinguishing between dementia and delirium is crucial because the latter often signals a medical emergency and may be reversible with prompt and appropriate treatment. In contrast, dementia typically involves long-term management strategies.

Treatment and management

Treatment for dementia and delirium varies significantly due to their different underlying causes and progression patterns. While both require comprehensive approaches, delirium often demands urgent care to address the immediate cause, whereas dementia treatment focuses on managing symptoms and slowing progression.

Treatment of dementia

Dementia treatment primarily aims to improve the quality of life for both the person with dementia and their caregivers. 

Approaches include:

  • Medications: For Alzheimer's, drugs such as cholinesterase inhibitors (e.g., donepezil, rivastigmine) and memantine may help manage symptoms by affecting neurotransmitter levels. However, these medications do not stop the disease's progression.
  • Therapeutic interventionsCognitive stimulation therapy, occupational therapy, and physical exercise can help maintain function for as long as possible.
  • Behavioral and psychological supports: Interventions to manage depression, agitation, and other behavioral symptoms, including counseling, environmental adjustments, and sometimes medication.
  • Support for caregivers: Education, support groups, and respite care services to help caregivers manage stress and provide better care.
  • Planning for the future: Early legal and financial planning and considering long-term care options as the disease progresses.

Treatment of delirium

Treatment of delirium involves identifying and addressing the underlying cause(s), focusing on supportive care to prevent complications. Treatment strategies include:

  • Addressing the cause: Treating infections, correcting metabolic imbalances, and adjusting or discontinuing medications that may contribute to delirium.
  • Environmental and supportive measures: Ensure a safe, calm environment; maintain a regular schedule; use clocks and calendars for orientation; and encourage the presence of familiar objects and people.
  • Medication management: While the primary goal is to treat the underlying cause, medications may sometimes be used to manage severe agitation or psychosis that poses a risk to the patient or others. These are typically used with caution and under close supervision.
  • Rehydration and nutrition: Ensuring the patient receives adequate fluids and nutrition, which can involve intravenous fluids if necessary.
  • Mobilization: Encouraging movement and mobility as soon as it's safe to prevent physical decline.

A multidisciplinary approach involving a team of healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses, therapists, and social workers, is often the most effective for both conditions. The goal is to provide comprehensive care that addresses both medical needs and supports the individual's overall well-being and their family.

Prevention and management

While dementia is not entirely preventable, adopting a healthy lifestyle, engaging in cognitive activities, and managing risk factors like heart disease or diabetes can reduce the risk or delay its onset.

Delirium, however, is often preventable, especially in hospital settings or for vulnerable populations. How can you reduce delirium? Minimize medication use, maintain hydration and nutrition, promote mobility, and provide adequate sleep and support in a familiar environment.

Early detection and intervention for both conditions help doctors and family caregivers provide optimal management and care. Family caregivers play a vital role in recognizing changes in their loved one's cognitive function and seeking prompt medical attention.

Advocacy and caregiving

If your loved one shows signs of dementia or delirium, contact their medical professional right away. Delirium and dementia have distinct signs and symptoms and need different kinds of treatment. Remember to speak up for your loved one and focus on helping them feel good. Your loved one will get the best care possible and enjoy life with your support.

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