Diagnosis & Tests

If you think that an older adult may have delirium, let a healthcare professional know. Have the person evaluated as soon as possible.

 Detection and Screening

Healthcare professionals diagnose delirium by observing a person and testing their state of mind. The professionals can use a simple set of tests and standard questions. Examples of questions:  

  • Do a simple math problem
  • Spell a short word backward
  • Repeat a series of four or five numbers, in order and then in reverse order
  • Name the days of the week backward

Assessment Tools

The healthcare provider may use an assessment tool such as the Confusion Assessment Method (also known as CAM), for high-risk older adults. The CAM tool measures:

  1. Quick change in mental status
  2. Inability to pay attention
  3. Thinking that is mixed up
  4. Different levels of awareness (consciousness)

Other tools are also available for more widespread screening of people who have a lower risk of delirium. These tools include a Family CAM, or Ultra-Brief CAM

Delirium versus Dementia

Delirium can have the same symptoms as dementia. This can make it hard to make a diagnosis.

  • Both include memory and language problems
  • Both delirium and dementia can exist at the same time
  • Delirium develops far more quickly than dementia. When the behavior or thinking of a person with dementia quickly gets much worse, the cause is likely to be delirium.

Delirium occurs very often in older adults with Delirium is still treatable and preventable in persons with dementia. Seek medical attention as quickly as possible. 


Last Updated May 2023

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