Dementia and delirium. They’re two words that are commonly used interchangeably to describe any sort of altered or confused mental state. However, while this may be common, it’s not necessarily correct.

In fact, dementia and delirium are two very different phenomenons with distinctly different characteristics. So, today, we’re exploring the discrepancies between them that you should be aware of. As the old saying goes, knowledge is power.

What is Dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a group of conditions characterized by the impairment of at least two core brain functions. These functions could include memory loss, personality disorders, or impaired judgment and reasoning.

What is Delirium?

To put it simply, delirium is a disturbance in a person’s mental abilities that lead to confused thinking and reduced awareness of one’s environment. Delirium can come on suddenly, so it can often be quite frightening to the person experiencing it.

What are the Differences?

1. Symptoms

Unfortunately, it can be incredibly difficult to discern between dementia and delirium, as the symptoms are remarkably similar. To complicate things further, delirium often occurs in patients who also have dementia—the two can come hand-in-hand.

As the Mayo Clinic reports, there are three different types of delirium. These include:

Hyperactive Delirium: Patients are restless. They often pace or experience sudden mood changes or even hallucinations.

Hypoactive Delirium: The opposite of hyperactive delirium, these patients are sluggish, lethargic, and might experience reduced motor activity.

Mixed Delirium: A combination of the above symptoms.

However, symptoms of dementia relate more to memory, communication, and judgment. Those with dementia have issues with their short-term memory (for example, forgetting where they placed something), personality changes (which can frequently be confused with hyperactive delirium), and rash decisions.

2. Onset of Symptoms

This can be one of the largest indicators of whether a patient is experiencing dementia or delirium.

Delirium comes on fast. Signs and symptoms often occur in the matter of a few hours or days. In contrast, it takes much longer for signs of dementia to exhibit. These often start off slow and gradually worsen over an extended period of time.

3. Cause

Dementia is often seen as a result of aging. There are numerous different types of dementia, and the causes of each can differ. However, most are related to medical phenomenons that occur in older patients, such as degeneration of the cerebral cortex, Alzheimer’s Disease, and a series of small strokes.

Delirium, however, is less tied to aging. This can result from multiple different causes, including fever, surgery, intoxication, or use of certain medications.

4. Treatment

Of course, both dementia and delirium are fairly complicated medical disorders. However, to simplify a complex concept, most types of dementia are often irreversible, progressive, and degenerative. Delirium, on the other hand, is often temporary and can be treated effectively.

Dementia and delirium are terms that are often used interchangeably—but, that’s not exactly correct. Now that you know the fundamental differences, you’ll be able to better discern which one you’re dealing with.