Aging often comes with a decline in cognitive function. In many cases, this decline is diagnosed as dementia (especially in hospitalized elderly patients). However, other conditions, like delirium and depression, can cause cognitive impairment that mimics dementia symptoms. To ensure an elderly individual gets the right treatment, it’s essential they receive an accurate diagnosis. In this blog, we’ll examine the differences between these conditions and how you can help someone experiencing delirium, dementia and depression.

What Is Dementia?

Dementia is a general term for a group of symptoms that disrupt cognitive function. Some types of dementia include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease: The most common dementia cause
  • Vascular dementia: Caused by damage to blood vessels in the brain
  • Lewy body dementia: Occurs when clumps of protein form in the brain
  • Frontotemporal dementia: Connected to the frontal and temporal brain lobes

No matter what the cause is, patients with dementia usually experience similar symptoms.


Confused elderly man suffering from dementia is being helped by his wife.


Dementia Symptoms

People with dementia begin with mild cognitive impairment, which progresses to more severe impairment over time. In later stages, symptoms may include the following:

  • Difficulty remembering important details (including names and faces)
  • Trouble communicating
  • Struggling with activities of daily living (i.e., grooming, bathing and dressing)
  • Mood and personality changes

The progression of dementia differs from person to person. Depending on the severity of their symptoms, a patient may live anywhere from 2 to 25 years after diagnosis.

What Is Delirium?

Delirium is a disorder characterized by increased confusion and a general lack of awareness. It can be divided into the following types:

  • Hypoactive delirium: Involves restlessness and higher motor activity
  • Hyperactive delirium: Involves slower speech, cognitive decline and sedation-like effects
  • Mixed delirium: Involves a combination of hypoactive and hyperactive delirium symptoms

Whether it’s hypoactive or hyperactive, delirium is related to the brain. More specifically, it occurs when brain signals aren’t transferred properly. This could be the result of numerous problems, including drug and alcohol use, poor nutrition or fever.

Delirium Symptoms

Similar to those with dementia, patients with delirium may experience the following:

  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty communicating
  • Mood changes
  • Forgetting their surroundings

Both dementia and delirium are associated with mental decline, which can make it difficult to differentiate between them. The main difference between the two conditions is the speed at which symptoms occur. Delirium has acute onset symptoms, meaning the signs appear relatively quickly. Meanwhile, dementia involves a more gradual process.

What Is Depression?

Depression is a mood disorder that affects how someone thinks, feels and behaves. With over 280 million people diagnosed with depressive illness globally, it’s a very common disorder that impacts people of all ages. Like dementia and delirium, it can be broken down into different types:

  • Major depressive disorder: Involves feeling depressed most of the time and most days of the week
  • Persistent depressive disorder: Depression that lasts for over 2 years
  • Seasonal affective disorder: Depression that occurs during certain seasons (typically winter)
  • Bipolar disorder: Characterized by extreme mood swings

All types of depression come with similar symptoms.


Elderly woman looking out the window concept image for depression in seniors.


Depressive Symptoms

Depression is associated with melancholy and a lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities. These effects can cause symptoms similar to those of dementia and delirium, such as:

  • Lack of communication
  • Mood changes
  • Forgetting about or neglecting obligations
  • Poor grooming and bathing habits

Like dementia, the progression of depression is gradual. Most patients start with minor symptoms that grow in severity over time. However, depression doesn’t include the memory problems associated with dementia. While a person with depression may neglect events occurring in their life, their overall memory will generally remain intact.

Can Delirium, Dementia and Depression Occur Together?

Dementia, depression and delirium can occur simultaneously, which may make it harder to reach an accurate diagnosis. Having dementia can make the brain more likely to develop delirium; similarly, the physical and mental changes connected to dementia may encourage depression symptoms. This is especially common in older hospitalized patients, who might feel isolated and frustrated with being in a hospital.

How Are Delirium, Dementia and Depression Diagnosed?

If a doctor suspects signs of dementia, delirium or depression, they might conduct the following tests:

  • Physical and neurological exams: These exams provide deeper insight into physical and mental symptoms and can help rule out any other potential causes.
  • Geriatric depression scale: This self-reporting scale asks older adults questions about their mental health to help diagnose depression.
  • Confusion assessment method: This is a diagnostic tool used to identify delirium.
  • Mini-mental status examination: This exam, which takes just 5 minutes, tests functions like memory, reading and writing (which helps diagnose dementia).

Once an official diagnosis is achieved, the next step is treatment.


Caregiver taking care of senior lady with dementia.


What Treatments Are Available for Delirium, Dementia and Depression?

Dementia, depression and delirium have a slew of negative side effects, and they’re associated with lower quality of life and increased mortality. Thus, it’s important for patients to receive treatment as soon as possible.

Both depression and delirium can be treated through a combination of counseling and medication. Antidepressants (like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are often used to treat depression, while antipsychotics can help mitigate delirium symptoms.

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, on the other hand, have no known cure. Although there are medications that can help reduce symptoms, they can’t eliminate dementia altogether. As symptoms worsen, most patients will require hands-on, professional caregiving. These services are available at memory care homes like Catered Living at Ocean Pines.

Catered Living at Ocean Pines: Personalized Dementia Care

Our memory care home, situated in Worcester County, Maryland, helps older adults manage the challenges that come with dementia. We offer a team of professional caregivers who work closely with patients to create personalized treatment plans. Ultimately, our goal is to improve overall physical health, mental health and quality of life.

Whether your loved one is struggling with dementia or dementia, depression and delirium together, our team can help. In addition to memory care services, we offer respite care for those recovering after a hospitalization. Learn more about our assisted living community in Ocean Pines Maryland by scheduling a tour today!