November 21, 2017

Dementia vs. Mental Illness in Seniors

When it comes to the aging population, it can be difficult to differentiate between the effects of mental illness versus dementia. Dementia is defined as a chronic or persistent disorder of the mental process caused by brain disease or injury. Most commonly, dementia presents itself in the elderly population through memory loss, impaired reasoning and personality changes. On the other hand, mental illness refers to a wider variety of mental health conditions that impact mood, thinking and behavior. While dementia does affect overall mental health, it is not a mental illness.

With 1 in every 3 seniors developing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia annually, it is vital to receive a proper diagnosis to ensure the appropriate treatment is provided.  Misdiagnosis is common between the two disorders because of their similar signs and symptoms, such as confusion and mood swings.

Common Signs of Dementia in Seniors

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in aging adults, accounting for 60-80 percent of dementia cases in the United States. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that causes the cells in the brain that are responsible for memory to die. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but identifying the symptoms can help slow the worsening of the disease.

If you believe your loved one is showing early signs of dementia, it is important to consult a doctor. Some of the most common signs of dementia in seniors include:

  • Confusion. For seniors, increased confusion can be an early sign of the cognitive decline associated with dementia. Aging adults who suffer from dementia may become disoriented, having difficulty recognizing friends or family members, identifying what time or day it is, or even misplacing items and accusing others of theft.
  • Loss of Words. Seniors with dementia often find it difficult to communicate or complete sentences. Alzheimer’s disease can cause aging adults to struggle with finding words or cause them to mix their words and use them incorrectly.
  • Memory Impairment. Although forgetfulness can often be mistaken for a “senior moment,” a normal part of aging, memory loss is also an early sign of Alzheimer’s and dementia. As the disease progresses, this symptom can worsen and disrupt daily life. If you notice a difference in your loved one’s hygiene, it may be time to consult a mental health doctor.
  • Mood Swings. Due to the nature of the symptoms such as memory loss and general confusion, dementia can lead to severe mood swings and personality changes. Adults who are suffering from dementia are often depressed or fearful.

The Leading Signs of Mental Illness in Seniors

As many as 1 in 5 older adults experience a mental illness that is not associated with the normal process of aging. Unlike dementia, mental health disorders can be treated and managed. If you believe your loved one is experiencing signs of a mental illness, it is important to seek out professional treatment as soon as possible. Some of the most common signs of mental illnesses in older adults include:

  • Anxiety. Many older adults suffering from anxiety were likely to have experienced it at a younger age, however anxiety is not exclusive to those who went through it before. For seniors, signs of anxiety can include consistent worrying about family, friends and money, trouble sleeping or irritability, and racing or unwanted thoughts.
  • Depression. As one of the most common mental illnesses among seniors and adults and also a symptom of dementia, depression is commonly overlooked as a mental health disorder. Aging adults who may suffer from lack of mobility can become socially isolated and depressed. If their state of sadness persists longer than two weeks, it is important to seek out medical attention.
  • Bipolar Disorder. Late onset bipolar disorders are difficult to diagnose due to their similarity to dementia symptoms, including irritability, manic behavior and delusions. Recognizing these symptoms accompanied by other signs of bipolar disorder including fatigue, weight gain or loss, paranoia, impulsivity, crying and aggression can help differentiate between dementia and mental illness.
  • Schizophrenia. Late onset schizophrenia disorder can be difficult to diagnose as it develops in adults after the age of 45 and presents itself as the individual ages. The most common signs of this mental illness include hallucinations, paranoia or disorganized behavior and lack of restraint.

Discover Memory Support with Symphony Senior Living

Symphony Senior Living is renowned for our leadership and expertise in the field of memory care. Our Moments® memory care program was developed by Symphony with the assistance of several long standing experienced members of the dementia care community in both the U.S. and Canada. Contact us today to learn more about our supportive memory care services or explore our blog for more helpful resources.


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