1.3. Explain why depression delirium and age related memory impairment may be mistaken for dementia 1.3. Explain why depression, delirium and age related memory impairment may be mistaken for dementia

1.3. Explain why depression, delirium and age related memory impairment may be mistaken for dementia

Dementia Awareness

Care Learning

5 mins READ

This guide will help you answer the NCFE CACHE Level 2 Award in Awareness of Dementia Unit 1.3. Explain why depression, delirium and age related memory impairment may be mistaken for dementia.

When people think of dementia, they usually think of memory loss and confusion. However, other conditions such as depression, delirium, and age-related memory impairment can also cause similar symptoms. These conditions can be mistaken for dementia. It’s crucial to understand the differences to provide the right care and treatment.

Depression and Dementia

Similar Symptoms

Depression is a mental health disorder. It can cause deep sadness, loss of interest in activities, and changes in sleep and appetite. People with depression may also have trouble concentrating, poor memory, and become easily confused. These symptoms can look a lot like dementia.

Overlapping Features

  • Memory Problems: Both depression and dementia can lead to problems with memory. In depression, memory issues are typically due to lack of focus and interest, whereas in dementia, memory loss is progressive and usually worsens over time.
  • Cognitive Decline: Cognitive decline can be severe in depression, especially in older adults. This can make it difficult to tell if someone has dementia or if they are depressed.
  • Behavioural Changes: Mood swings, irritability, and social withdrawal are common in both conditions. These changes can easily be confused as symptoms of dementia.


  • Mood vs. Cognitive Focus: In depression, mood changes are more prominent. In dementia, cognitive decline is the main issue. Depression can often be treated effectively, whereas dementia is usually a progressively worsening condition.
  • Reversal with Treatment: Depression symptoms often improve with treatment. Dementia symptoms don’t usually improve and often progress over time.

Delirium and Dementia

Similar Symptoms

Delirium is a sudden change in a person’s mental state or consciousness. It causes confusion, disorientation, and poor thinking skills. These symptoms are sometimes mistaken for early dementia.

Overlapping Features

  • Acute Confusion: Both delirium and dementia can cause confusion and disorientation. However, delirium typically comes on suddenly and can fluctuate throughout the day, unlike dementia.
  • Attention Issues: People with delirium may have trouble concentrating and be easily distracted. They might appear disconnected from their surroundings, which can be mistaken for the forgetfulness seen in dementia.
  • Behavioural Changes: Agitation, hallucinations, and paranoia can occur in both conditions, further complicating the diagnosis.


  • Onset and Duration: Delirium usually starts suddenly and can last from hours to days. Dementia develops slowly over months or years.
  • Reversibility: Delirium often has a specific cause (like infection, surgery, or medication) and can be treated, sometimes reversing the symptoms. Dementia usually does not improve and is often irreversible.
  • Level of Consciousness: Delirium can cause fluctuations in consciousness and alertness. People with dementia usually do not experience these fluctuations.

Age-related Memory Impairment and Dementia

Similar Symptoms

As people age, it’s normal for memory to decline a bit. This is called age-related memory impairment. However, distinguishing this from early dementia can be challenging.

Overlapping Features

  • Memory Lapses: Both conditions involve memory issues. For example, forgetting names or misplacing items can occur in both. This can lead to confusion with dementia.
  • Slower Thought Processes: Older adults may find it takes longer to think through problems. This slower cognitive processing can look like early signs of dementia.
  • Mild Cognitive Impairment: Some degree of cognitive decline is seen in normal ageing. When mild, it can be mistaken for the early stages of dementia.


  • Severity and Impact: In age-related memory impairment, memory loss is typically less severe and does not significantly impact daily life. Dementia, however, leads to a decline in ability over time, affecting work, social activities, and daily functioning.
  • Progression: Age-related memory impairment remains stable and does not progress significantly. Dementia symptoms progressively worsen, affecting both memory and other cognitive functions.

Assessing the Differences

Properly diagnosing and distinguishing between these conditions involves careful assessment. Here are some steps involved:

  • Medical History: Reviewing the patient’s medical history helps identify any past mental health issues, medications, or illnesses.
  • Mental Status Exam: Healthcare providers use tests to evaluate memory, attention, and other cognitive functions.
  • Physical Exam: Identifying physical health issues that could be causing symptoms, like infections or medication side effects.
  • Imaging Tests: Brain scans such as MRI or CT scans help identify structural changes in the brain that are typical of dementia.

Importance of Correct Diagnosis

Accurate diagnosis is crucial for proper treatment. Misdiagnosing dementia can lead to inappropriate treatment:

  • Treatment: Treatable conditions like depression or delirium need specific treatments. Misdiagnosis can result in untreated depression or delirium, leading to increased suffering.
  • Quality of Life: A correct diagnosis allows for the right interventions, improving overall quality of life. For instance, treating depression can significantly enhance someone’s mood and cognitive function.
  • Family Support: The right diagnosis enables families to understand the condition and provide appropriate support and care.

Example answers for unit 1.3. Explain why depression, delirium and age related memory impairment may be mistaken for dementia

Below are example answers for a care worker completing Unit 1.3: “Explain why depression, delirium, and age-related memory impairment may be mistaken for dementia.”

Example Answer 1

Depression and Dementia

Similar Symptoms:
Depression can cause memory loss, lack of concentration, and confusion, similar to dementia. This overlap can make it hard to tell the two apart at first glance.

Overlapping Features:

  1. Memory Problems: Both people with depression and dementia may struggle with remembering recent events.
  2. Cognitive Decline: Depression can cause significant cognitive decline, mimicking dementia.
  3. Behavioural Changes: Both conditions can cause mood swings and social withdrawal.

The main difference is that depression often includes more prominent mood changes and can be treated effectively with medication and therapy. Dementia usually progresses over time and does not generally improve.

Example Answer 2

Delirium and Dementia

Similar Symptoms:
Delirium can suddenly cause confusion and poor thinking skills, which can look a lot like early dementia.

Overlapping Features:

  1. Acute Confusion: Both conditions may result in confusion, but delirium comes on suddenly and fluctuates.
  2. Attention Issues: Difficulty in concentrating is common in both.
  3. Behavioural Changes: Agitation and hallucinations can occur in both, making it hard to tell them apart.

Delirium often starts suddenly and can be reversed with treatment. Dementia, however, develops gradually and is usually irreversible. People with delirium may also experience changes in consciousness, which is less common in dementia.

Example Answer 3

Age-related Memory Impairment and Dementia

Similar Symptoms:
Memory declines with ageing, which can make it difficult to differentiate between normal age-related changes and early dementia.

Overlapping Features:

  1. Memory Lapses: Forgetting names or misplacing items can be common in both.
  2. Slower Thought Processes: Taking longer to solve problems can resemble early dementia signs.
  3. Mild Cognitive Impairment: Both can show mild cognitive decline.

Age-related memory impairment usually does not significantly impact daily life activities and remains stable. Symptoms of dementia, however, worsen over time and affect daily functioning.

Example Answer 4

Assessing the Differences

Medical History: Checking the medical history helps spot past issues like depression or delirium, helping to differentiate them from dementia.

Mental Status Exam: Tests evaluating memory and other cognitive functions help identify the cause of the symptoms.

Physical Exam: Ruling out physical health issues like infections or medication side effects can help in proper diagnosis.

Imaging Tests: Scans such as MRI can show brain changes typical of dementia, aiding in correct diagnosis.

Example Answer 5

Importance of Correct Diagnosis

Treatment: Knowing whether a patient has depression, delirium, or dementia ensures they get the right treatment. Misdiagnosis can leave conditions like depression untreated.

Quality of Life: Correct diagnosis leads to appropriate interventions, improving the patient’s quality of life. For example, treating depression can uplift mood and cognitive function.

Family Support: Families can better understand the condition and provide the right support and care with an accurate diagnosis.

By providing these detailed responses, you demonstrate a thorough understanding of the overlapping symptoms and the differences between depression, delirium, age-related memory impairment, and dementia. This understanding is essential for delivering high-quality care and ensuring proper diagnosis and treatment.


Distinguishing between dementia, depression, delirium, and age-related memory impairment can be challenging due to overlapping symptoms. Understanding the differences and conducting thorough assessments are vital for ensuring proper treatment and support. Accurate diagnosis affects treatment plans, quality of life, and family support, making it an essential component of care in health and social services.

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