• Home
  • Senior Center
  • Senior Articles | Difference Between Dementia and Mental Illness

Senior Center

Difference Between Dementia and Mental Illness

By Jan Bolder - May 27, 2014

Not Sure / All Nursing Homes
Assisted Living In-Home Care
Hospice Memory Care
Retirement Communities
Residential Care
Senior Care Search
Powered by LivingSenior
As we get older, a deteriorating memory is one of the most invisible things to affect us. It's not clear and easy to see the way a bum knee or wonky hip is, and can't be fixed by a simple procedure. However, within deteriorating memories are two specific subsets: mental illness and dementia. To be put it very roughly, the former can be "managed" while the latter is something that tends to happen with age and doesn't go away. What they both have in common is they're disorders of the brain, but apart from that, there are a world of differences between them.

Mental Illnesses

When it comes to mental illnesses, what we're most familiar with are things like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and more. They can most certainly affect a senior later on in life instead of following the usual age pattern of the specific mental illness, but like any disorder — whether mental, physical, or age-related — there are always going to be exceptions and norms.

Mental illnesses can be thought of arising from four general sources:

  • 1. Genetics (e.g. "nature", like having your mother or father have a specific mental illness)
  • 2. External social and environmental factors (e.g. "nurture", and can be something like isolation or loneliness)
  • 3. Biological — or physical — changes in the brain (e.g. such as a chemical imbalance)
  • 4. Psychological — or "invisible" — factors (e.g. self-esteem, inability to cope with catastrophic event)
  • Dementia

    When we think of dementia, it's almost always in relation to age. There are exceptions, of course, such as the now-increasing prevalence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) arising from retired athletes from getting physically tossed around for so long. Concussions can also lead to dementia in people much younger than seniors, and can occur in athletes and non-athletes alike.

    The causation criteria for dementia starts to vary a little bit when talking about dementias, with this being the most important point:

  • Loss of nerve cells and brain atrophy
  • However, one thing to remember when talking about mental illnesses and dementias is there can frequently be a lot of overlap between the two. For example, the chemical imbalances responsible for schizophrenia can easily trigger dementia, causing the two to co-exist side-by-side.

    What's Done About Mental Illnesses and Dementia

    Your senior's doctor is the first point of contact for your senior, and will work with them to identify any potential risk factors and what can be done to retard the mental illness or dementia. Some of the risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • History of depression
  • History of traumatic brain injury
  • In terms of what can specifically be done, that depends on exactly what the senior has, and if anything overlaps. It's important to remember that there's no one course of treatment that will work for everybody, but rather figuring out a plan that's as tailor-made for your senior as possible. In terms of general tips to follow, eating well, staying active, and engaging in a healthy social life are all steps seniors can — and should — take to ensure they're in the best fighting shape possible.