Aging Better: Know the difference between delirium and dementia

March 14, 2021

Delirium is increasingly common as you get older, and occurs more often than most people believe.

In fact, among older people, delirium affects approximately 50 per cent of those admitted to hospital, and more than 80 per cent of those in intensive care. Between 15-70 per cent of individuals living in long-term care homes are also affected.

Delirium is considered by many experts to be a medical emergency. It is signalled by a rapid change in brain function, which primarily affects the ability to focus attention. It can fluctuate over the course of a day, with periods of lucidity followed by increased confusion.

Because individuals may exhibit signs of acute confusion, unusual behaviours and forgetfulness, the disorder is often mistaken as dementia. However, the conditions are fundamentally different.

“If an individual’s behaviour has changed and they seem confused, some people initially suspect dementia. However, if symptoms seem to change suddenly during the day but they have periods where they are still behaving as they normally do, you should speak to a medical expert about the possibility of delirium," says Mary Kjorven, a clinical nurse specialist with Interior Health. "Medical professionals are trained to ask a series of screening questions that evaluate an individual’s risk of delirium.”

Mary says the overall impacts of delirium can include:

  • Increased mortality
  • Increased dependency
  • Increased functional impairment (short and long term)
  • Increased rates of admission to long-term care homes
  • Longer lengths of stay in hospital

It's important to know that delirium is preventable and treatable by addressing the underlying cause. There are several common causes for delirium. These may include sleep deprivation, dehydration, mixing medications, and bowel and bladder issues including constipation.

Here are some tips for avoiding delirium:

  • Take care of yourself with proper eating, sleeping, hydration, and physical activity.
  • Ensure your mind stays healthy and active, too, with regular socializing and other activities to stimulate the brain.
  • Check to ensure your eye glasses and hearing aids are working properly, so you are seeing and hearing effectively. 

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