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Mental Illness and Dementia: Similarities and Differences

In many ways, mental illness can manifest the same symptoms of dementia, and vice versa. While there are a lot of similarities between the two, there are also some pretty critical differences. If you have a loved one in hospice in San Francisco and elsewhere who is suffering from one of the two, you’ll want to read on. To recognize Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 6-12), we will use this blog to explain the similarities and differences between mental illness and dementia.

Each year, millions of Americans live with a mental health condition, but it’s important to remember that mental illness affects everyone either in a direct or indirect way through friends, family or coworkers, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Despite the reach and prevalence of mental illness, though, stigma and misunderstanding are still widespread. Couple that misunderstanding with the fact that mental illness can imitate the symptoms of dementia, and vice versa, and you have a serious, pervasive problem in this country.

Mental Illness with AD

It’s common for mental illness, particularly depression, to happen in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. But accurate diagnosis and treatment has been known to improve cognitive function, according to Today’s Geriatric Medicine. It’s difficult enough living with AD, but the symptoms are compounded when it occurs in conjunction with other mental disorders like anxiety, depression, and psychotic conditions.

In fact, the CDC says that serious symptoms of depression occur in up to 50 percent of older adults with Alzheimer’s, and major depression occurs in about 25 percent of cases. Depression is often intermingled with the belief that this is simply an older adult’s reaction and awareness of progressive decline. But there is more to it than that, with some research suggesting there is a biological connection between AD and depression.

Anxiety disorders are also common, happening in about 30 percent of adults who have AD. Anxiety can include anything from generalized nervousness and fear of leaving home to agitation regarding changes of routine and feelings of suspicion or paranoia. Anxiety can also be psychologically and physically linked to AD.

Symptoms for Dementia Sufferers

Alzheimer’s may also co-exist with psychotic conditions. Older adults who have schizophrenia are just as likely to develop AD as those who have no severe mental illness. They are also at a higher risk for depression, translating to a possible trifecta of co-occurring mental disorders. Symptoms of these disorders include:

  • Extreme sadness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Disinterest in people and previously-enjoyed activities
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety about change, going out of the house, strangers, etc.
  • Feelings of suspicion or paranoia
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Increased aggression
  • Pacing
  • Immobility
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Verbal or physical abusiveness
  • Refusal to cooperate

Such symptoms are also associated with negative consequences for those who are caring for the patient, such as heightened caregiver burden, and increased risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and physical illness in caregivers.

Making the Distinction

When you think of dementia, you may think of it as a mental illness because of the effects on the brain. However, there are some big distinctions between dementia and mental illness which must be considered in order to make an accurate diagnosis. Yes, dementia does affect mental health but it is not a mental illness. Rather, it’s a disorder of the brain that can cause memory loss and communication difficulties, says American Senior Communities.

The correct diagnosis of mental illness or dementia in the elderly is key in making sure they get the appropriate treatment as fast as possible. Misdiagnosis of mental illness in seniors is very easy to make, as symptoms tend to be so similar to dementia, such as confusion and erratic behavior.

It’s important to get a clear look at the symptoms of dementia and the symptoms of mental illness.

Dementia Symptoms

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It basically causes cells in the brain responsible for controlling memory to die. This irreversible condition occurs in severe and moderate stages, with the main symptoms of dementia including:

  • Difficulty communicating
  • Increased memory issues
  • General confusion
  • Personality and emotional changes

Common Mental Illnesses in the Elderly

If a senior shows signs of mental illness, it’s vital to recognize the symptoms and seek treatment quickly. Some of the common mental illnesses among the elderly include:

  • Depression: This is the most common mental disorder in seniors. Social isolation plays a big part in emotional well-being, so when a senior is left alone for long periods of time away from loved ones, depression can set in quick. Depression is also a symptom of dementia which is where things get tricky.
  • Late-onset bipolar: This can be tough to diagnose in late stages due to its similarities to dementia symptoms such as manic behavior, agitation, and delusions.
  • Late-onset schizophrenia: This manifests in adults after age 45, and also has symptoms similar to dementia, such as hallucinations and paranoia.

Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice

Knowing the difference between dementia and mental illness rests on the shoulders of your loved one’s healthcare team. Caregivers at Pathways Home Health and Hospice have experience with dementia patients and their associated symptoms and are trained to know the difference. Contact us at 888-978-1306 to learn more about our dementia care services.