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Is Delirium A Symptom Of Dementia

Difference : The Onset And Symptoms

Delirium – causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment & pathology

Even if confusion is common to both dementia and delirium, specific symptoms are different. Dementias are diseases that develop slowly over a few years. In contrast, delirium appears acutely in a few hours or a few days at most. Its often hard to pinpoint the precise moment where the confusion appeared in dementia, but for delirium it is oftentimes possible.

Also, it is worth knowing that the confusion in delirium will tend to vary more than it does in dementia. In delirium, a person can be much better or much worse over a single day or even over a few hours. These episodes are known as cognitive fluctuations. They can be present in dementia but they mostly occur over longer periods of time.

Cognitive Changes For Dementia Patients

  • Disorientation: A person with dementia becomes lost in familiar places, expresses confusion about the date or time of day, or has difficulty with directions.
  • Memory loss: Failure to recognize people and faces, in later stages even family members or close loved ones. Dementia patients can also experience decreases in short term memory, such as asking the same questions repeatedly or forgetting recent events and conversations.
  • Problems communicating: Loss of social skills and lack of interest in socializing, frequently forgetting words, or being unable to follow a conversation.
  • Difficulty with complex tasks: Difficulty planning or organizing events, paying bills, following recipes, writing letters, or traveling to new locations.
  • Difficulty staying focused and concentrating, decreased ability to learn and memorize new information.
  • Problems with coordination: Decreased motor functions and coordination, sometimes manifested as trembling, shaking, or difficulty walking.

What Happens When Someone Has Delirium

People with delirium have cognitive and memory problems, hallucinations, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder .

One man with delirium had terrifying hallucinations, including one where he was on stage covered in blood. Another had hallucinations about being burned alive.

Psychologist James C. Jackson of Vanderbilts ICU Recovery Center says these horrible experiences are typical. Some delusional memories are distortions of things that have actually happened like patients who got catheterized thinking they were sexually assaulted or people getting MRIs thinking they were being put into a giant oven.

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What Causes Delirium In Hospitals

Delirium is more likely to develop when patients are in intensive care, heavily sedated, and on ventilators up to an 85% chance.

Its also common when patients are recovering from surgery and with something as simple as a urinary tract infection.

Unfortunately, once the delirium starts, it can last for months.

Dementia Delirium And Depression: Similarities Differences And Treatments


Welcome to the educational program Dementia, Delirium, and Depression: Similarities, Differences, and Treatments. Delirium and depression are commonly seen in those with dementia, but it can be difficult to distinguish the three conditions because they can have similar symptoms. This program will help you understand the similarities and differences between dementia, delirium, and depression, and the major treatments for them.

. . .

This is Lesson 1 of The Alzheimers Caregiver. You may view the topics in order as presented, or click on any topic listed in the main menu to be taken to that section. We hope that you enjoy this program and find it useful in helping both yourself and those you care for.

There are no easy answers when it comes to the care of another, as every situation and person is different. In addition, every caregiver comes with different experiences, skills, and attitudes about caregiving. Our hope is to offer you useful information and guidelines for caring for someone with dementia, but these guidelines will need to be adjusted to suit your own individual needs.

Remember that your life experiences, your compassion, and your inventiveness will go a long way toward enabling you to provide quality care. Lets get started.

Prefer to listen to this lesson? Get started by clicking the Play button below.

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Implications Of All The Available Evidence

To thwart a new spread of the virus in the event of a second wave of COVID-19, special attention should be given to elderly patients who manifest acute behavioural changes, namely delirium, especially in the presence of lymphopenia. In these circumstances, establishing an empathetic relationship with next-of-kin is particularly important for an effective communication of possible poor prognosis and palliative care interventions. The brain pathology underlying delirium as a symptom of COVID-19 deserves further investigation to clarify disease mechanisms.

How Is Delirium Treated

The doctor may request blood and urine tests and will be able to decide on appropriate treatment. They may also want to review any medication that could be contributing to the delirium.

There is also evidence that delirium can be prevented by targeting potential causes. You can mitigate against some of the causes of the confusion, like constipation, dehydration and infection, by ensuring the person stays well hydrated, observes hand hygiene and follows any advice theyre given about wound care and medical devices . If possible, you should also avoid the person moving beds or wards in hospital.

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Tests To Evaluate Inattention

There is no consensus on how attention should be assessed, and most existing tests differentiate the inattention found in delirium from that in dementia., This uncertainty impedes progress in clinical practice and research. Several neuropsychological tests are currently used to assess inattention in delirium including digit span, spatial span, months of the year and days of the week backwards, and serial sevens. A recent review of studies on attention assessment in delirium concluded that cancellation tests , span tests, and computerized tests of sustained attention appear to offer utility in discriminating delirium from dementia. Months of the year backwards, one of the most widely used attention test in clinical practice, appears to have high sensitivity to delirium in older hospitalized patients.â

Things To Know About Delirium And What You Can Do

Confusion: delirium, dementia or both?

1.Delirium is extremely common in aging adults.

Almost a third of adults aged 65 and older experience delirium at some point during a hospitalization, with delirium being even more common in the intensive care unit, where its been found to affect 70% of patients. Delirium is also common in rehabilitation units, with one study finding that 16% of patients were experiencing delirium.

Delirium is less common in the outpatient setting . But it still can occur when an older adults gets sick or is affected by medications, especially if the person has a dementia such as Alzheimers.

What to do: Learn about delirium, so that you can help your parent reduce the risk, get help quickly if needed, and better understand what to expect if your parent does develop delirium. You should be especially be prepared to spot delirium if your parent or loved one is hospitalized, or has a dementia diagnosis. Dont assume this is a rare problem that probably wont affect your family. For more on hospital delirium, see Hospital Delirium: What to know & do.

2. Delirium can make a person quieter.

What to do: Be alert to those signs of difficulty focusing and worse-than-usual confusion, even if your parent seems quiet and isnt agitated. Tell the hospital staff if you think your parent may be having hypoactive delirium. In the hospital, its normal for older patients to be tired. Itsnotnormal for them to have a lot more difficulty than usual making sense of what you say to them.

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Irreversible Dementias: Alzheimers Disease

Among the irreversible dementias, Alzheimers disease is the most common type, accounting for approximately 50% of dementias. Alzheimers disease is associated with loss of brain cells in the parts of the brain that control memory and cognitive functions. This loss of brain cells causes an imbalance of chemicals called neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine, which is decreased in Alzheimers disease. As brain cells die, the brain becomes smaller, or atrophies. The areas of the brain that control memory, logical thinking, and personality are generally the most affected. Abnormal proteins called neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques are found in the brain of those with Alzheimers.

Research has found genes that are associated with some forms of the disease, and other genes that predispose one to it. Currently, Alzheimers is progressive, irreversible, and incurable. However, medications can slow its progression.

Criteria for diagnosing Alzheimers disease include memory impairment, poor executive functioning, and one or more of the following: aphasia , apraxia , agnosia . These impairments should represent a decline from baseline functioning and have significant impact on social or occupational functioning. In general, Alzheimers disease develops gradually and worsens progressively.

Delirium Risk Factors: Medical Conditions

Heart and lung disease can increase the risk for delirium by affecting the delivery of oxygen to the brain. Congestive heart failure, heart attacks, and arrhythmias all compromise the ability of the heart to pump an adequate supply of oxygen and nutrients to the brain and remove waste and toxins from the brain. Physical shock also decreases the flow of blood to and from the brain. COPD and respiratory failure will impair the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs, limiting oxygen to the brain and allowing the buildup of carbon dioxide.

Several metabolic conditions can also predispose someone to delirium by disrupting the balance flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain and waste and toxins away from the brain. Kidney failure and liver failure hinder the bodys ability to metabolize and rid the body of waste and toxins that could be damaging to the brain. Electrolyte or salt imbalance, malnourishment, and vitamin deficiency can hinder brain function and cause delirium. Anemia can also predispose someone to delirium by reducing the bloods capacity to carry oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Lastly, diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism, and hypothyroidism can cause hormone imbalances that can lead to delirium.

Because so many medical conditions can contribute to delirium, it is very important to treat and control all medical issues.

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Understanding The Differences Between Dementia Delirium And Depression

Dementia, delirium, and depression have many similar symptoms. They have different causes and different treatments. Giving treatment for the wrong condition could have negative and even dangerous consequences for the person, so it is extremely important to correctly diagnose the cause of the symptoms.

An experienced healthcare professional should evaluate the person and prescribe the treatment. However, we will present a brief comparison of some important signs and symptoms that will help you to distinguish one condition from another.

How Can I Help A Person With Delirium Be Independent


The person should do as much as possible on their own. They may need some assistance in becoming independent. The person should:

  • Understand their care plan: Consider getting an interpreter if there are language barriers.
  • Be involved in their treatment: Encourage them to ask their provider any questions they may have.
  • Get support devices: They should use eyeglasses and hearing aids to promote good vision and hearing so they can communicate better.
  • Get out of bed: During the day, the person should be out of bed as much as possible. Help them sit in a chair during mealtimes or walk when possible.

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Causes Of Sudden Confusion

Sudden confusion can be caused by many different things. Do not try to self-diagnose get medical help if someone suddenly becomes confused or delirious.

Some of the most common causes of sudden confusion include:

What Are The Treatments For Delirium

Treatment of delirium focuses on the causes and symptoms of delirium. The first step is to identify the cause. Often, treating the cause will lead to a full recovery. The recovery may take some time – weeks or sometimes even months. In the meantime, there may be treatments to manage the symptoms, such as

  • Controlling the environment, which includes making sure that the room is quiet and well-lit, having clocks or calendars in view, and having family members around
  • Medicines, including those that control aggression or agitation and pain relievers if there is pain
  • If needed, making sure that the person has a hearing aid, glasses, or other devices for communication

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Information Guidance And Tools To Help You Identify And Manage Episodes Of Delirium In Older Patients

Delirium is a state of heightened mental confusion that commonly affects older people admitted to hospital. Ninety six percent of cases are experienced by older people. When older people with dementia experience severe illness or trauma such as a hip fracture they are more at risk of delirium.

Delirium causes great distress to patients, families and carers and has potentially serious consequences such as increased likelihood of admission to long term care and increased mortality.

People who have delirium may need to stay longer in hospital or in critical care have an increased incidence of dementia and have more hospital-acquired complications such as falls and pressure ulcers.

Differences Between Delirium And Dementia

Delirium and Dementia

Delirium and dementia are conditions that can be confusing, both to experience and to distinguish. Both can cause memory loss, poor judgment, a decreased ability to communicate, and impaired functioning. While the question of delirium vs dementia may seem difficult to answer, there are many differences between the two, including the following:

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Arousal Awareness And Motor Fluctuations

Different cognitive domains are affected in dementia. For example, although the ability to learn is reduced, an individual may still have little difficulty with perceptual motor functioning, and perhaps be slightly less impaired in selective attention in comparison with the ability to divide attention. Clearly, the ability to engage cognition depends on the degree of arousal . The term âarousalâ can be defined as the level of sensory stimulation that is required to keep the patient attending to the examinerâs question or following a command.

Cognitive domains and arousal. Different cognitive domains are affected in dementia, but the ability to engage cognition depends on the degree of arousal. In the radar plot to the left of the figure, this particular individual has almost normal arousal, perhaps being somewhat hyperalert . With the onset of delirium, most cognitive domains deteriorate as arousal decreases as could be the case given hypoactive delirium . In this constellation of an individual having shown cognitive impairment, including attention, prior to delirium, it is especially challenging to adequately test for specific change in any one of multiple attentional domains . It is, moreover, as difficult to determine the time of onset given that change is not from a nonimpaired state , not knowing how severe the baseline impairment actually was .

Can Delirium Be Prevented

Before you or a loved one has surgery, talk to your healthcare provider about assessing your mental status before the procedure. This way, your provider can establish a baseline. If your mental status changes after surgery, providers have presurgical measurements for comparison. And if you or your loved one has risk factors that increase your chances of developing delirium, talk to your provider.

These other tips can help prevent delirium:

  • Keep a clock and calendar nearby.
  • Have plenty of lighting during the day.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about limiting medicines that arent needed, especially those that may cause delirium.
  • Drink plenty of water and other fluids.
  • Take a walk every day, or at least get out of bed and sit in a chair.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider if you have any signs of an infection, such as cough, fever, pain or shortness of breath.
  • Keep your family involved in the treatment plan.

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Difference : The Duration And Reversibility

The difference in length and reversibility between the two conditions is very important. Most dementias are considered to be chronic conditions that are lifelong and for which there is currently no cure. Alzheimers disease, the most common form of dementia, is one good example.

Conversely, delirium is not a chronic condition. Indeed, when someones confusion is due to delirium, the confusion itself will usually lessen and resolve completely in the days and weeks following diagnosis. Although there are exceptions, a persons mental state will typically return to the state it was before delirium. Delirium is reversible and thus short-lived, contrary to dementia.

Picks Disease Or Fronto


Fronto-temporal dementia is rare and accounts for only three to five percent of all dementia. It can occur in individuals as young as 40 and is more common among women. This form of dementia is caused by damage to the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.

The frontal lobe is in charge of executive functions such as reasoning, judgment, decision-making, and personality. The frontal lobe also controls a persons social graces and impulses. Because the greatest damage is in this area, behavior and personality changes usually occur before memory loss and language problems. People with this Fronto-temporal dementia often present with disturbing behaviors such as aggressiveness, uninhibited and overt sexual behaviors, poor personal hygiene and dress, apathy, compulsive or repetitive behaviors, stealing, and inappropriate language. Speech is affected if the left side of the brain is the damaged.

Later in the illness, the disease will affect other cognitive functions including memory, automatic skills, and recognition. The behavior seen in fronto-temporal dementia can also occur in Alzheimers disease, but in Alzheimers, these behaviors usually appear later in the illness.

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Evidence Linking Delirium And Dementia

A major area of controversy is whether delirium is simply a marker of vulnerability to dementia, whether delirium unmasks unrecognised dementia, whether the impact of delirium is solely related to its precipitating factors, or whether delirium itself can cause permanent neuronal damage and lead to dementia. Clinically, the development of delirium may have direct âtoxicâ effects related to periods of lethargy, psychomotor retardation or agitation, and unsafe behaviours. The lethargy and psychomotor retardation may result in immobility and related complications, including but not limited to aspiration pneumonia, respiratory compromise, decreased oral intake with dehydration or malnutrition, pressure ulcers, urinary tract infection, deep venous thrombosis and pulmonary emboli. Psychomotor agitation and unsafe behaviour may lead to falls and use of antipsychotics and other sedative medications or physical restraints, along with their attendant complications. Thus, the occurrence of delirium itself may set off a cascade of noxious stimuli that may adversely impact the brain.


Maclullich AM, Anand A, Davis DH, Jackson T, Barugh AJ, Hall RJ, Ferguson KJ, Meagher DJ, Cunningham C. New horizons in the pathogenesis, assessment and management of delirium. Age Ageing. 2013 Nov 42:667-74.

Fong TG, Tulebaev SR, Inouye SK. Delirium in elderly adults: diagnosis, prevention and treatment. Nat Rev Neurol 2009 5: 210-220. PMCID: PMC3065676


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