Delirium vs Dementia – What are the Differences

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Delirium vs Dementia – Are they the same?


To make a distinction between delirium vs dementia there are several factors to take into consideration. One of the first steps in diagnosing dementia is to rule out delirium. A few of the symptoms to look for in delirium are listed below.


• How fast did the person start to exhibit symptoms
• Any history of recent head trauma
• Signs of malnutrition
• Possible drug use or reaction to prescription drugs
• Did the individual recently stop smoking or drinking or even stop using prescription drugs
• Recent illnesses such as infection or flu

Changes in memory and personality that progress slowly over a period of months or even years usually is a sign of dementia. Changes that occur over a period of days or weeks can indicate delirium. In cases of head injuries and other traumatic events, signs of delirium can be almost immediate at times.
Dementia symptoms will typically progress evenly over a long period of time, while in many cases of delirium a person can have varied levels of cognitive function. Ranging from hyper-alertness to a sleepy, lethargic appearance. One very telling sign in discerning delirium vs dementia is that in most cases of delirium an individual is totally unable to stay focused on one task or thought for any length of time.


Delirium vs Dementia Reference Chart

BeginningSudden, one can usually pinpoint when it startedSlow and gradual, with an uncertain starting point
How long it lastsDays to weeks but can last longerAlmost always irreversible
CauseTypically caused by another condition (sickness, drugs or allergic reaction to prescription drugs, dehydration...etc.)Usually a chronic brain disorder ( Alzheimer disease, Lewy body dementia, vascular dementia)
ProgressionReversible in most casesAdvances gradually
AwarenessVariably impairedUnimpaired until dementia has become severe
Reaction at nightMost often worseUsually worse
Attention spanGreatly impairedNormal until dementia reaches upper stages
Orientation to time and placeVariesFluctuates according to stage of dementia
Ability to rememberVariesLost, especially for recent events in latter stages
Handling of languageSometimes slurred, often incoherent, and at times inappropriateWill struggle to find the right word at times
Need for medical assistanceImmediateRequired but less urgent unless in final stage



Causes – Delirium vs Dementia


There are many causes for dementia or delirium to try to list them all would be futile. I have tried to list some of the more prevalent causes for each condition in the module below.

An acute medical illness, such as a urinary tract infection or influenza, A “brain event,” such as stroke or bleeding from an unrecognized head injury, An adverse reaction to a medication, mix of medications or to alcohol Withdrawal from abruptly stopping a medication, alcohol or nicotine
Alzheimer’s, Deficiencies in blood flow to the brain over time (Vascular Dementia), Lack of proper vitamins and minerals, Diabetes, Multiple sclerosis, Brain Injury, Chronic Alcoholism, Some Brain Tumors.


Here’s a video from the University of Rochester on how to recognized delirium.



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