Everything you need to know about caring for those you love.

Differences Between Delirium, Dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s

Find out the differences between these symptoms and disorders as well as how to treat for someone with these conditions.

Tips for Caring for Someone with Brain Disorder

  • Join a community of caregivers to help cope with caregiver burnout​​caregivers
  • Personal care: bathing, eating, dressing, toileting, grooming
  • Household care: cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, finances
  • Health care: medication management, physician's appointments, physical therapy
  • Emotional care: companionship, meaningful activities, conversation
  • Supervision: oversight for safety at home and to prevent wandering
  • Make sure the person always carries ID
  • Dress your loved one in bright clothing
  • Use radio tracking devices
  • Fence

Treatment Options for Delirium

  • Address the condition that causes delirium through blood tests, X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs, etc
  • Minimize drugs that cause delirium
  • Medications

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Treatment Options for Dementia

Treatment Options for Alzheimer’s

Treatment Options for Parkinson’s

  • Medications: Carbidopa-levodopa, Carbidopa-levodopa infusion, Dopamine agonists, MAO B inhibitors, Catechol O-methyltransferase (COMT) inhibitors, Anticholinergics, Amantadine
  • Surgical procedures: Deep brain stimulation
  • Exercise and nutrition

Differences Between Delirium, Dementia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's

Your brain doesn’t finish developing until your mid-to-late 20s. Is it all downhill from there? Neuroscientists are discovering that you can continue to rewire your brain to encourage growth and prevent your brain cells from dying, but everyone experiences age-related cognitive decline.

It’s often lumped into an umbrella category of “mental slowdown” that happens as you get older.

However, there are a few different brain diseases that affect aging adults. Here’s how to understand the difference between delirium, dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.



We’ll begin with dementia because it’s usually the container category for all age-related brain disease. Dementia is not a brain disease in and of itself; it’s a generic term that refers to age-related mental decline. When this word is used, it typically describes cognitive delays that are more severe than a little forgetfulness. Dementia generally describes mental slowdown that interferes with daily life.

There are several sub-categories of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form and represents up to 80 percent of dementia cases. Vascular dementia is the second most prevalent type.

Vascular dementia occurs when your thinking skills are impaired due to cerebrovascular disease. When your brain doesn’t get the blood flow and oxygen that it needs to thrive, it isn’t as sharp. Brain cells can die, changing the way that you store or process information. This type of dementia usually comes on after a stroke.


Symptoms of Dementia

Even though dementia is common, it’s often misdiagnosed. Different types of dementia share similar symptoms. For example, the memory loss that’s associated with vascular dementia mimics that of Alzheimer’s disease.

Some of the most common symptoms of dementia include:

  • Making mistakes when performing routine daily activities
  • Trouble recalling well-known facts
  • Repeating stories or questions
  • Forgetting the day of the week/disorientation
  • Declining motor function
  • Personality changes
  • Suspicion/paranoia
  • Disorganization
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors

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How is Dementia Diagnosed?

Diagnosing dementia is important because you might be able to slow down the process of cognitive decline with certain treatments. Also, if your symptoms stem from physical disease instead of brain disease, you might want to take a completely different route when seeking a remedy.

For example, cataracts or hearing loss can impair your daily function. Some of the symptoms above may stem from fatigue or another medical condition. Being able to address the problem can improve your quality of life in your golden years.

Addressing your symptoms with your primary care physician can help you determine the next steps. Your doctor may refer you to a neurologist. Although there is no definitive test for dementia, doctors can help diagnose the condition using the following:

  • Medical history
  • Symptoms
  • Physical exam
  • Cognitive and neuropsychological tests
  • Brain scans
  • Psychiatric evaluation


Delirium is an acute brain change that affects your thinking, memory, sleep, mood and emotions. Many factors can cause delirium, and it’s not limited to elderly adults.

For example, delirium tremens is a serious condition that can occur when someone who has abused alcohol for a long period of time quits cold turkey.

This type of delirium can affect anyone. If an elderly adult is diagnosed with a certain health condition or needs to undergo surgery, they may be instructed to stop drinking. If they’ve struggled with alcohol addiction or consumed large amounts of alcohol for a significant period of time, they may experience delirium when they stop using it.


Delirium tremens is considered a medical emergency. If you’ve stopped using alcohol and experience symptoms of delirium, see a doctor right away.

But delirium is also associated with other brain diseases as well as physical ailments. You’re at risk for delirium if you’re over 65 and have many health problems. Other people who are more likely to develop delirium include:

  • Surgery patients
  • People going through addiction detox
  • Individuals who have had brain damage or stroke
  • Those who are under significant emotional stress
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Some medications, such as sleeping pills, blood pressure medications and sedatives
  • Poor nutrition or hydration
  • Infection

Many elderly people have a combination of these risk factors.

Symptoms of Delirium

Even though dementia is common, it’s often misdiagnosed. Different types of dementia share similar symptoms. For example, the memory loss that’s associated with vascular dementia mimics that of Alzheimer’s disease.

Some of the most common symptoms of dementia include:

  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior
  • Psychotic symptoms
  • Delusions, hallucinations or false beliefs
  • Agitation
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Emotional disturbances
  • Clouding of consciousness
  • Trouble focusing or paying attention
  • Tremor
  • Motor abnormalities (including incontinence)
  • Drowsiness
  • Limited short-term memory
  • Hyperactivity or hypoactivity
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Symptoms of delirium usually come on much faster than symptoms of the other brain diseases that we’ve mentioned in this article. Symptoms of delirium may also change throughout the day. People with this condition often feel better during the day and experience disturbances at night. Delirium can interfere with their sleep-wake cycle.

How Is Delirium Diagnosed?

No laboratory test can diagnose delirium. Doctors should get a detailed medical history to identify the condition. However, if a patient is experiencing delirium, they may have trouble providing this information. Getting friends and family involved may be the key to diagnosing and treating this issue.

If your loved one has recently experienced mood, physical or mental changes, delirium could be the problem. The likelihood is even higher for people who fall in the high-risk category.

As an external observer, take notes about what’s going on. Telling a doctor that your friend or parent is confused isn’t as helpful as explaining what they were confused about, when they experienced confusion and what they said or did.

Doctors often use the Confusion Assessment Method to observe whether the patient can think, speak and move normally. They may also do laboratory tests to detect an underlying disease. Delirium is often a symptom of another medical condition, such as:

  • Organic brain syndrome
  • Sepsis
  • Kidney disease
  • Certain infectious diseases

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. However, all types of dementia are not Alzheimer’s disease.


Although every aging adult experiences some level of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease is not normal. It’s a progressive disease that gets worse over time. It’s the sixth leading cause of death for American adults. The prognosis for survival is typically four to eight years following diagnosis. However, some people can live for up to 20 years after they find out that they have the illness.

People ages 65 and older are most likely to develop Alzheimer’s. However, the early-onset form of this brain disease affects approximately 200,000 Americans younger than 65 every year.

Even though there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, scientists are continually researching the condition to find new ways of treating it. Current treatments don’t necessarily slow the progression of the disease. However, they can improve dementia symptoms and help people function in their daily lives.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

The most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are associated with memory loss. However, the way that memories are stored and recalled is distinct in people with Alzheimer’s than other forms of dementia. Patients with this disease usually have strong recollections of deeply seated memories.

However, they have trouble regurgitating information that they learned recently. That’s because Alzheimer’s changes the regions of the brain that are associated with learning.


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Some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Trouble remembering new information
  • Disorientation
  • Mood changes
  • Behavioral changes
  • Confusion about time, places and events
  • Suspicions toward loved ones and caregivers
  • Difficulty speaking, walking or swallowing

Alzheimer’s disease presents itself in different stages. Symptoms may vary, and the stages don’t always correspond exactly with these, but understanding them may help you identify the condition in yourself or a loved one.

The stages of Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Normal behavior – Only a PET scan would be able to pinpoint signs of Alzheimer’s.
  • Mild changes – Subtle symptoms that loved ones pick up on but a doctor might not notice and don’t affect daily functioning. These symptoms could be normal signs of aging.
  • Mild cognitive decline – Alterations in reasoning and thinking, such as forgetting names or recent information and repeating questions and stories.
  • Moderate cognitive decline – Obvious changes in thinking and logic and new issues, such as trouble cooking meals, ordering at a restaurant or signing a check. Someone in this stage shouldn’t be driving.
  • Moderately severe cognitive decline – Forgetting most facts and details about life, trouble remembering sense of self, serious confusion about daily tasks.
  • Severe decline – Complete confusion, delusions, limited motor functions and trouble with simple tasks, such as using the bathroom.
  • Extremely severe decline – Trouble walking, talking, sitting up or feeding themselves. Many people in this stage can’t tell when they’re hungry or thirsty.

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease

Experts are not sure exactly what causes Alzheimer’s disease. They do know that the condition leads to nerve cell death and brain tissue damage. Patients with Alzheimer’s have fewer neural connections in their brains than those without the disease.

They suspect that the damage may occur from plaques, abnormal proteins that can build up and block cell signaling.

Unfortunately, scientists can’t look at the brain in this way while a patient is still alive. Therefore, there are no diagnostic tests that can help doctors definitively diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.

However, physicians can rule out other conditions that cause similar symptoms. They can also perform examinations that highlight the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease. They’ll want to evaluate at the following:

  • Health history
  • Medication history
  • Personal history and important life events
  • Mental health state
  • Brain scans
  • Neuropsychological tests

Parkinson’s Disease


Parkinson’s disease is a brain disease that causes brain cell degeneration. It mainly affects an area of the brain called the substantia nigra. Many of the symptoms that are produced by Parkinson’s disease are cognitive. The substantia nigra is an area of the brain that produces dopamine, a chemical that enhances your mood and affects learning.

Depression is common in people with Parkinson’s, and many take medications that boost their dopamine levels.

There are many physical symptoms associated with this condition. We discuss those in more detail below.

Like Alzheimer’s, scientists are studying Parkinson’s disease to find a treatment that slows down the progression of the illness. Currently, treatments may ease symptoms, but they don’t address the brain damage that occurs.

Parkinson’s disease is not fatal. However, it can cause other physical and mental problems that can become serious.

Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease

  • Apathy
  • Depression
  • Constipation
  • Sleep trouble
  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Uncontrollable changes in facial expression
  • Tremors
  • Changes in posture and gait
  • Loss of balance
  • Feeling, seeing, smelling, hearing and tasting things that aren’t there
  • Hallucinations and delusions

Parkinson’s disease is usually expressed through the following five stages:

  • Stage oneMild symptoms don’t interfere with daily tasks, tremors occur on one side of the body, and posture, gait and facial expression changes may happen.
  • Stage twoSymptoms worsen, tremors and stiffness affect the entire body and walking and standing are more difficult. At this stage, people may have some trouble performing daily activities.
  • Stage threeTrouble moving quickly, and balance issues can make it hard to eat or get dresses. Patients may be more likely to fall.
  • Stage four Patients may need a walker to move around. Most people are unable to live alone at this stage because they need help with daily activities.
  • Stage fiveIt may be impossible to stand or walk. A wheelchair may help with mobility. A caregiver should be present at all times during this stage.

Diagnosing Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is associated with more early-onset physical symptoms than the other brain diseases that we’ve mentioned here. Therefore, it might be easier to diagnose.

Identifying some of the clinical motor dysfunction that goes along with the disease can help doctors make a diagnosis. People with the disease and their loved ones should be clear about their symptoms so that physicians can pinpoint the condition. If mental symptoms are observed before physical ones, this condition can be confused with other types of cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s disease.

Most doctors will diagnose Parkinson’s disease using the same evaluation methods that they use for the other conditions listed here. They may ask patients to take a specific medication that would relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s is the diagnosis. If your symptoms improve significantly when you take the drug, the diagnosis can be confirmed.

Differences Between Delirium, Dementia, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's

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