When we encounter memory problems, large or small, in ourselves or others — especially among seniors — we may immediately think, “Dementia!” Because that is a common affliction of older folks, it is taken for granted that it must be the cause of every mental problem.
There is another health issue that can have symptoms similar to dementia: delirium. Both conditions cause confusion and are similar on the surface. Although delirium is not the same as dementia, it can be a sign of a more serious health issue, including dementia.
Delirium is a syndrome that comes on suddenly, fluctuates, and causes disturbances in thinking, paying attention, and alertness. We often think of delirium as a detachment from reality, with the patient showing signs of disorganized thinking and decreased attention, with confused speech and orientation. One big difference between delirium and dementia is that the former comes on suddenly and symptoms can fluctuate. It is also more easily preventable and treated.
Delirium is a state of worse-than-usual mental confusion. As we grow older, we have little blips where familiar words, routines, names, faces, etc., play hide-and-seek in our brains. This is to be expected. These are commonly known as “senior moments.” Delirium tends to be more encompassing and severe, resulting in memory problems, language problems, disorientation, or even vivid hallucinations. Symptoms develop relatively quickly and get better at times and worse at times.
Delirium is generally triggered by states of unusual stress, and dementia and Alzhieimer’s sufferers are generally more susceptible. Illness and hospitalization, as well as medication side effects, can also bring on symptoms of delirium. If a loved one is exhibiting these signs and symptoms, there must be an underlying cause, one that could be serious, so it is important to take steps to discover the cause. Here is a helpful article with advice on what to do if someone is experiencing delirium in the hospital.
Although dementia and delirium are not the same, dementia patients are prone to delirium, and episodes of delirium can accelerate cognitive decline. Therefore, it should not be treated as “senior moments,” but should be taken seriously as a sign of something more serious.
For a more thorough treatment of this subject, see the article, “10 Things to Know About Delirium,” by Leslie Kernisan, MD MPH, at Better Health While Aging.
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