Fact or Myth: "Delirium is a form of dementia"

Delirium is a commonly misdiagnosed condition that is usually caused by the presence of an acute illness causing cognitive impairment. People often confuse delirium with dementia, while under the impression that only people with dementia can develop delirium, but this is not true. In fact there are multiple ways a person can become delirious, often due to an underlying health condition, lack of or use of certain medication, or during recovery from surgery.

Many of the symptoms related to delirium can often be confused as signs or symptoms of dementia, which is why it can be difficult to differentiate the two. It is known that delirium emerges quickly, usually due to an acute illness, but it may be mistaken that only people with dementia can develop delirium. This is not true but with proper diagnosis it can quickly be resolved with treatment. It is important to have an accurate diagnosis as the two are largely similar in symptoms but the methods of treatment are extremely different. Proper treatment may include taking or stopping certain medications. Another way to differentiate delirium and dementia is that one affects the memory and one affects one’s ability to pay attention. Memory loss is evident in dementia and loss of attention span is found in delirium. This can cause someone difficulty focusing on what is happening around them or following a conversation because their brain may be delayed or overactive.

The confusion between the two usually happens because of the similarities they share. Many of the same symptoms can be seen in someone with dementia, but as mentioned delirium can be treated and resolved rather quickly with proper diagnoses. Some similarities between the two conditions include; confusion, aggression, hallucinations, illusions, and difficulty paying attention. Delirium affects one’s mind, emotions, sleep patterns and muscle control. One may experience symptoms such as; incontinence, and movement either slower or faster than they normally would display. They may also have a reduced short-term memory and difficulty thinking or communicating effectively. This may also affect their mood making them become irrational and likely to experience uncommon mood swings when in a confused state.

You are more likely to experience delirium if you are over the age of 65 and have multiple health conditions. People post op are likely to experience delirium during recovery, and people who have conditions affecting the brain such as stroke or dementia. Someone experiencing an asthma attack may also develop delirium due to the lack of oxygen enter the brain along with the use of certain medications or use of multiple medications.

Delirium is considered to be an acute condition, meaning it is an illness with short duration which can emerge quickly but can quickly be resolved with proper treatment.

Different types of delirium

  • Delirium Tremens - this is seen when someone is trying to quit drinking alcohol after many years of consumption.
  • Hyperactive delirium - being highly alert but yet uncooperative
  • Delirium - drug induced
  • Hypoactive delirium - this is one of the most common types of delirium. People tend to sleep more, become inattentive and experience difficulty performing activities of daily living. Missed appointments and forgetting to eat or shower are just a few examples of what delirium may look like for someone experiencing this condition.