How to Differentiate Between Mental Illness and Dementia in Seniors

Often, people tend to confuse dementia with mental illness because both of them present some similar signs. It becomes even more challenging for seniors to tell which one they are suffering from except when they go for a proper diagnosis.

While it’s a good idea to go for a medical checkup, this article can help, in the meantime, to figure out what your loved one may be going through.

But first, let’s quickly explain what the two phenomena mean so that you can understand what we are talking about.

What is Dementia?

The first thing to note is that dementia is not a mental illness. It is rather a disorder of the brain or brain disease, leading to troubles with communication and ultimately memory loss. Dementia usually presents itself in seniors. And Alzheimer’s disease is one common form of dementia.

It affects at least 1 in every 3 seniors and has no cure currently. Dementia is quite serious, and you, therefore, want to check out this piece on how does dementia kill you.

What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness involves other mental health issues that affect your thoughts, mood, and behavior. With early diagnosis, mental illness can be treated.

Signs of Dementia in Seniors

Here are some signs of dementia that you should look out for:

Difficulty in Communication

People with dementia usually have difficulty communicating with other people. It is common for seniors with dementia to lose words or battle with the right words to pass across their thoughts.


An increasing state of confusion can be an indication that they are suffering from dementia. This is a result of a decline in cognitive ability. If they are often disoriented, or have trouble telling which day it is, or recognizing family and friends, it could be due to dementia.

Impaired Memory

Forgetting things once in a while happens to most people regardless of age. But if they experience it more often than normal, it could be a clear sign that dementia is around the corner.

Mood swings

Dementia causes personality changes and serious mood swings. If someone close to you are often fearful or depressed, you may want to get them checked out for dementia.

Signs of Mental Illness in Seniors

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder may be hard to diagnose when detected late, especially as it shares some similarities with dementia. But if it is accompanied by weight loss or gain, fatigue, impulsivity, aggression, paranoia, and crying, it is more likely a mental illness. 


Although seniors with dementia may also experience depression, it is more present in people with mental illness. But how to tell is if the depression lasts for up to 2 weeks, then it’s a mental illness. You may need to seek medical help.


Anxiety is a common thing even in healthy individuals, but when it becomes more frequent like excessive worrying over loved ones and properties, having difficulty sleeping, or just having random thoughts that you can’t explain, it may be a sign of mental illness.

Late-onset Schizophrenia

This disorder can be challenging to diagnose and usually starts manifesting once an adult clock 45 years or older. It is a mental illness with symptoms like paranoia, lack of restraint, hallucinations, and unstable behavior.

Final thoughts!

Dementia and mental illness may share some similarities, but that doesn’t make them the same thing. By now, you should be able to tell the difference between the two.

However, your best bet is to seek medical attention right on time before it degenerates. For a senior, even if they are having none or just a few of the symptoms mentioned above, it’s a good idea to point it out to your doctor on their next visit.

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