What’s The Difference Between Delirium And Dementia?

Dementia is a progressive loss of memory due to loss of or damage to neurons in the brain, resulting in steadily worsening confusion and ability to care for oneself.  It comes from the Latin for madness.

Delirium comes from the Latin word for frenzy, and is a disruption of attention and cognition (cognitive failure!) and can be misdiagnosed as dementia, psychosis, depression, or simply ignored as a “common problem of aging”.

Whereas dementia is permanent and eventually fatal, delirium is usually temporary, caused frequently by medications or infection, lasting hours to days.  The main features of delirium are: 
1) its fluctuating nature (the person can be quite sharp and then an hour later completely confused about where he is and what’s going on);  
2) inattentiveness, meaning trouble staying focused on what you are discussing (often ‘picking’ at things); and,
3) changing level of consciousness – they are alert one minute and drowsy the next.

If delirium is recognized early and treated, full recovery is possible.  Unfortunately, the older one is, the greater the risk of delirium and the poorer the outcome:  up to 56% of seniors in hospital will experience it and up to 67% will not have it diagnosed, resulting many times in a “chronic delirium” – essentially a form of dementia.
Next time I’ll talk about the different types of dementia.