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Difference Between Dementia and Delirium

If you or a loved one are currently suffering from dementia, you have more than likely become familiar with various terms. A common term is delirium, as many dementia patients suffer from periods of confusion. As dementia progresses, behaviors can be unpredictable. How do you know if your loved one is in a state of delirium, or they are simply displaying symptoms of dementia?

What Is the Difference Between Dementia and Delirium?

First, let’s define delirium so that you have a better understanding of what it actually is. Delirium is a condition which results in severe confusion and issues regarding one’s behavior and ability to think. Since individuals who are living with dementia are especially at-risk, it’s important to recognize possible signs and symptoms.

Unfortunately, professional healthcare providers sometimes struggle to recognize the difference, as many symptoms of delirium overlap with dementia. For instance, those who become confused in the evening may be seen as someone who’s suffering from sundowning.

The best way to identify the difference between the symptoms of delirium and dementia is based on  the onset of these symptoms. When it comes to dementia, changes occur much more slowly. Issues regarding thinking, behavior, and memory tend to unravel over the course of several months.

Delirium, on the other hand, occurs very abruptly. In some cases, symptoms can appear in a matter of hours. If you notice that sudden changes are surfacing over the course of days or weeks, it’s important to investigate further. The one key hallmark to be aware of is inattention. If you notice rapid changes and your loved one cannot focus on a singular idea, delirium may be to blame.

When diagnosing dementia, delirium must first be ruled out as the core cause of symptoms. Since dementia patients are at an increased risk of delirium, it’s often the case that individuals are suffering from both. In these cases, delirium is generally treatable so it’s important to obtain an accurate diagnosis.

Can I Prevent Delirium? What Causes It?

Coping with symptoms of dementia is overwhelming enough, so it’s important to do everything in your power to avoid further complications. There are certain factors that increase one’s risk of delirium and unfortunately, dementia is one of them. Medication, various acute illnesses, age, a brain injury, and malnutrition are all possible causes.

This is why it’s imperative to continue eating well, exercising, drinking plenty of water, and eliminating substances such as alcohol or nicotine. In turn, you will help prevent delirium from developing. Ask your loved one’s doctor for a medical review every so often, ensuring that doses and medications are up-to-date in terms of their needs. Also, avoid using medications such as sleeping pills or muscle relaxants.


Alz.org. (2015). Delirium or Dementia – Do You Know the Difference? Alzheimer’s Association. Retrieved from http://www.alz.org/norcal/in_my_community_17590.asp


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