Unique to Older Adults

This section provides information to help older adults and their caregivers consider their disease or condition in conjunction with other health issues.

As older adults live longer, they may have more than one chronic disease.  Or, they may have a health problem that can lead to another condition or injury if not properly managed.   The older adult may also experience healthcare in various settings, such as the hospital, assisted living facility or at home. These situations can affect the health and function of the older adult and therefore require careful management to ensure proper care and improve or maintain quality of life.

Read on to learn more about the differences between delirium and dementia, other neurological disorders, and some important causes of delirium in older adults. 

Delirium is a common occurrence that can affect the health and quality of life for older persons. Delirium can be described as an acute change in mental status, usually occurring during a significant illness or stressful time. While delirium often occurs in people who have an underlying dementia, there are some important distinctions between the two.

Differences Between Delirium and Dementia

Any sudden change in behavior or mental functioning may be delirium.  Although it is difficult to tell the difference between delirium and dementia, it is important for your healthcare provider to do so because delirium can be reversible or treated right away.  Three of the key signs that a person is delirious are:

  • They have difficulty concentrating
  • There are changes in behavior, personality, or temperament
  • They have a change in level of consciousness (for example, being either super alert or drowsy)

If you suspect that someone in your care with a memory problem has become delirious, you must alert a healthcare professional. Delirium is considered a medical emergency.  One of the most common causes of delirium is medications, especially a reaction to a new medication.  Among the most common medications that cause delirium are narcotics, benzodiazepines, anti-cholinergic medications, anti-Parkinsonian drugs, and some anti-epileptic medications. Acute infection, surgery, or a new illness are other common causes.

Other Neurologic Disorders

Sometimes people who suffer strokes develop delirium.  This can occur without any other medical complications and regardless of whether the stroke was caused by a blood clot or a hemorrhage.  In addition, people with Parkinson’s disease are at a high risk for developing delirium. Depression may coexist with delirium or be mistaken for it. Always remember that depression and dementia come on slowly whereas delirium comes on quickly.

Some Important Causes of Delirium in Older Adults

Click the sections below to learn more about important causes of delirium in older adults. 

Last Updated July 2020

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