Learn How to Tell the Difference Between Delirium & Dementia
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Learn How to Tell the Difference Between Delirium & Dementia

As you are caring for your senior loved one, you may begin to notice a change in their mental acuities, such as cognitive impairment or memory loss, and it can be frightening. You might wonder if your loved one has dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or some other condition causing the changes you are seeing. We have provided this guide to help you learn more about both conditions, and gain some insight into what causes delirium and dementia, and the treatment options available to you or your loved one. 

What is Delirium?

To put it simply, delirium is defined as a mental state that includes confusion, disorientation, and memory loss. The person suffering from delirium is not aware of their condition and they do not understand what is going on around them during the episode.

Delirium is one of the most common causes of confusion in an aging adult and often can be confused with dementia. It occurs when a person's mental status suddenly and rapidly changes and they become disoriented and confused.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Delirium?

  • Acute confusional state

  • A sudden change in alertness

  • A sudden change in awareness

  • Changes in attention span that can lead to personality changes and mood swings

  • Sudden restlessness or agitation

  • They might try to get out of bed repeatedly

  • They could moan or yell for seemingly no reason

  • Their words may become jumbled and they may have difficulty recalling words

  • They may repeat the same thought, question, or activity over and over again

  • They may have difficulty following basic instructions or understanding what you are saying

What are the Causes of Delirium? 

  • Medications

  • Alcohol withdrawal

  • Infections

  • Blood sugar imbalances (hypoglycemia)

  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)

  • Brain tumors

  • Metabolic imbalances such as low sodium or low calcium

  • Injury

  • Stroke

  • Heart attack

  • Severe, chronic, or terminal illness

If your loved one is suffering from delirium, you should seek immediate medical attention. Delirium is a result of an underlying condition and can have serious health consequences. In addition, your loved one may injure themself trying to get out of bed or otherwise escape the situation they are in if they do not understand where they are or what is going on around them.

Once the underlying cause has been eliminated, if it cannot be reversed, the doctor may prescribe medication to help control symptoms of delirium.

What is Dementia?

Dementia is a general term that describes a loss of memory, thinking, and reasoning skills that is more severe than what might be expected from normal aging or delirium. These changes are so pronounced that they have a significant effect on the person's ability to perform everyday tasks. There are many different types of dementia, although the most commonly known one is Alzheimer’s. 

What are the Different Types of Dementia? 

There are more than 40 types of dementia, including these:

  • Vascular dementia

  • Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus dementia

  • Frontotemporal Dementia

  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

  • Dementia With Lewy Bodies 

  • Parkinson's Disease Dementia

  • Mixed Dementia

  • Huntington's Disease

  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease dementia

What are the Causes of Dementia

There have been many debates around the causes of dementia, but the most popular and accepted belief is that it is caused due to a mix of risk factors. The risk factors for dementia  include:

  • Having a family history of dementia: Coming from a family with a history of dementia leads to an increased chance of getting the disease, even without any other risk factors present. Having close relatives with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's increases your odds as well.

  • Alzheimer's disease: this is the most common cause of dementia.

  • Vascular issues: problems with the blood flow to the brain can be a major factor when it comes to dementia. Problems with the carotid arteries in your neck, for example, can lead to multiple sections of your brain not receiving enough oxygen and glucose (the essential nutrients that help you think and remember).

  • Exposure to certain toxins: Long-term exposure to carbon monoxide, lead, and other harmful chemicals; as well as some repeated head injuries can result in dementia.

  • Alcohol and tobacco use: Drinking and smoking too much is bad for your health in many ways. Abusing these substances can cause memory loss and personality changes over time.

  • Lewy body dementia: Lewy bodies are abnormal deposits of protein in brain cells. People with this kind of dementia often experience hallucinations and delusions.

  • Frontotemporal dementia. frontotemporal dementia is a group of diseases characterized by the breakdown of nerve cells and their connections in the frontal lobe and the temporal lobe of the brain. There are different types of dementia symptoms for each condition, depending on the part of the brain.

  • Poor diet: A diet lacking in essential nutrients that are highly processed increases your risk of dementia greatly.

What are the Symptoms of Dementia?

  • Confusion about time, place, person, or situation

  • Anger, anxiety, or depression

  • Blank staring into space

  • Loss of appetite leading to weight loss and malnutrition

  • Repeating words or phrases over and over again.

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Confusion with routine tasks

  • Word-retrieval issues

  • Learning and memory impairments

  • Changes are usually gradual and worsen over time


How to Tell the Difference Between Delirium and Dementia

Delirium is characterized by a more sudden change in a person's ability to think and understand and typically follows an event. It involves confusion, memory loss, and changes in vision or hearing. As opposed to dementia which typically happens gradually, delirium is often caused by a medical condition such as a urinary tract infection, constipation, sleep deprivation, overactive thyroid, drug reactions or toxicity, alcohol withdrawal, etc. Delirium can typically be treated and is reversible, whereas most dementia types are not reversible or their symptoms worsen with time.

Diagnosis and Treatment Options for Delirium:

In order to diagnose if someone is suffering from delirium, a "confusion assessment method” (CAM) is used to determine if delirium is present. When using a CAM, doctors will look at one of four categories of symptoms.

These 4 categories are:

  1. Mental status changes (such as the person being unable to think, respond, speak, see, hear)
  2. Affect (how someone is feeling) which can be depression, anxiety, or psychosis
  3. Altered level of consciousness (inability to stay awake or pay attention)
  4. Impaired cognition

Once the assessment is complete, the doctor will then review the person's medical history and symptoms. The doctor may do a physical exam to check for things that can cause delirium such as infections, dehydration, anemia (not having enough healthy red blood cells), injury, etc. Once the doctor has determined the presence of delirium and the underlying medical condition is identified, it needs to be treated in order for delirium to resolve. The treatment options available will vary significantly depending on the cause of the patient's delirium and you and your doctor can work together to come up with a treatment plan that suits your needs.

How Do Doctors Diagnose Dementia?

There are two different types of tests that are used when trying to diagnose dementia:

  • Medical exams: may involve blood tests, brain scans, or other tests based on the specific symptoms that are being displayed.

  • Psychological examinations: will typically involve your doctor talking with you about your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and can also include an assessment of your memory. The results from these two different types of tests will help your doctor decide what the best course of action is in your treatment.

Are There Any Treatments for Dementia?

While there is currently no cure for dementia, there are some things that can be done to slow the progression of the disease or ease the symptoms of this debilitating condition. The drug treatment options available for dementia are as follows:

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors

  • Memantine

  • Aducanumab-avwa (Aduhelm)


Brain-training Exercises & Activities to Prevent and Delay Dementia

By keeping the mind active, you can preserve mental acuity and slow or prevent the progression of dementia. Try incorporating these simple exercises today to keep your mind sharp and healthy as you age:

  • Use your non-dominant hand to do daily tasks: This exercise will allow you to mentally stimulate the opposite side of your brain, which is responsible for creativity and spatial perception.

  • Learn something new: Learning a new language, musical instrument, or hobby is a great way to keep your mind healthy and increase neuroplasticity. This will help you stay active in your thinking processes and prevent mental decline.

  • Try brain-boosting crosswords: Crossword puzzles are surprisingly popular among older adults and for good reason. They are an excellent activity for improving memory skills and slowing the progression of dementia.

  • Play memory games online: Simple memory games like matching pairs or hidden objects can be a great way to spend time with the whole family, as well as strengthen your brain.

  • Communicate with loved ones: Expressing yourself is an important part of staying sharp, both socially and mentally. Engaging in conversation helps keep your mind from becoming idle and lonely – a common cause of mental decline. 

  • Continue your education: Continuing your education can be more than going back to college, you can learn new skills at any time by reading, taking classes, or watching educational shows.


How to Reduce Your Risk of Dementia and Delirium:

The best thing you can do is to prevent these conditions from occurring in the first place. This can be done by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, making certain lifestyle modifications, and being aware of your medical history. The following are things that have been shown to lower your chance of developing dementia and delirium:

  • Exercise regularly

  • Avoid tobacco and alcohol

  • Get adequate sleep

  • Reduce stress

  • Eat a healthy diet 

  • Maintain healthy relationships

  • Stay hydrated

  • Go to the doctor for regular checkups

  • Practice regular brain training exercises

If You are Diagnosed with Dementia, Senior Helpers Orlando Can Help

Senior Helpers is a leading provider of in-home care services for elderly patients, allowing seniors to maintain independence while living at home.

Our caregivers provide assistance with the following things:

  • Activities of daily living

  • Help with medications

  • Cooking

  • Light housekeeping

  • Errands

  • Encourage engagement in daily life

  • Create opportunities for social interaction

  • Stimulate the brain

  • Reminiscence therapy

For more information about our dementia care services in Orlando, FL call 407-966-2854 today!