Your Health: Knowing the difference between dementia and delirium

Health Reports

More than five million people in the U.S. are living with dementia. It affects attention, memory and judgement.

However, in the hospital dementia is commonly misdiagnosed as delirium, a mistake that can delay treatment to slow the progression of the disease.

Here is how you can distinguish between dementia and delirium while also getting the help your loved ones need.

More than seven million hospitalized patients in the U.S. will experience some form of delirium every year.

Forty five percent of those patients will have persistent delirium at discharge and 26% will experience delirium three months after being in the hospital.

When delirium lasts this long, could it be something else?

“It is sometimes very difficult to differentiate between delirium and dementia because sometimes they are superimposed on each other,” said Barbra Kahn, MD, Critical Care Physician at Regenstrief Institute at Indiana University.

Since cognition impairment is present in both conditions, how can you spot the difference?

“The main difference between delirium and dementia is delirium develops acutely and it tends to fluctuate. So the patient could be fine at one moment and very soon they can be fluctuating,” said Dr. Kahn.

Dementia is a chronic condition that affects mainly memory, while delirium is short lived and mainly affects attention.

The most important distinction between the two conditions is that delirium is reversible while dementia is not.

“If by a few months after discharge if they feel that the things are not getting better and those symptoms are persistent, then it might be time to go over to a specialized memory clinic,” said Dr. Kahn.

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