Alzheimer disease is a type of brain disorder. It causes memory loss, confusion, and changes in personality, and gradual loss of independence. It is the most common type of dementia. At first, people with this disease have only a small amount of memory loss and confusion. This is called cognitive decline. But over time, these symptoms get more severe.
The disease progresses through 3 main stages of symptoms. In the final stage, people with Alzheimer disease may be unable to talk with family members or know what is going on around them.
This disease can’t be cured. Healthcare providers and caregivers often focus treatment on slowing the process and ensuring a good quality of life for everyone involved.
Alzheimer disease is becoming more common as the general population gets older and lives longer. Alzheimer disease usually affects people older than 65. A small number of people have “early-onset” Alzheimer disease, which starts when they are in their 30s or 40s.
People live for an average of 8 years after their symptoms appear. But the disease can progress quickly in some people and slowly in others. Some people live as long as 20 years with the disease.
No one knows what causes Alzheimer disease. Genes, environment, lifestyle, and overall health may all play a role.
The stages of Alzheimer disease usually follow a progressive pattern. But each person moves through the disease stages in his or her own way. Knowing these stages helps healthcare providers and family members make decisions about how to care for someone who has Alzheimer disease.
Changes in the brain begin years before a person shows any signs of the disease. This time period is called preclinical Alzheimer disease and it can last for years.
Symptoms at this stage include mild forgetfulness. This may seem like the mild forgetfulness that often comes with aging. But it may also include problems with concentration.
A person may still live independently at this stage but may have problems:
Remembering a name
Recalling recent events
Remembering where he or she put a valuable object
The person may be aware of memory lapses. Their friends, family, or neighbors may also notice these difficulties.
This is typically the longest stage, usually lasting many years. At this stage, symptoms include:
Increasing trouble remembering events
Problems learning new things
Trouble with planning complicated events, like a dinner
Trouble remembering their own name, but not details about their own life, such as address and phone number
Problems with reading, writing, and working with numbers
As the disease progresses, the person may:
Know that some people are familiar but not remember their names, or forget the names of a spouse or child
Lose track of time and place
Need help choosing the right clothing, getting dressed, and doing daily activities, such as brushing teeth
Become moody or withdrawn, or have personality changes, such as hallucinations, paranoia, or delusions
Be restless, agitated, anxious, or tearful, especially in the late afternoon or at night
Physical changes may occur as well. Some people have sleep problems. Wandering away from home is often a concern.
At this stage, a person:
Loses many physical abilities, including walking, sitting, eating
May lose bowel and bladder control
May be able to say some words or phrases but not have a conversation
Needs help with all activities all the time
Is unaware of recent experiences and of his or her surroundings
Is more likely to get infections, especially pneumonia
The early signs of Alzheimer disease may not be obvious to anyone except the person with the disease and the people closest to them. Even then, the symptoms may be confused with normal changes that come with age.
To make a diagnosis, healthcare providers usually do an interview that uses several types of tests to find out how well the person’s brain is working. These are often memory tests. They may seem like puzzles or word games. The healthcare provider might also take a health history and order some tests to check for other possible causes of memory loss or confusion. These tests may include brain scans, such as CT, MRI, or PET scans. The provider might talk with family members about symptoms they have noticed.
Treatment varies based on a person’s age, overall health, health history, symptoms, and preferences. Some medicines can slow the progress of the disease in some people. These may work for a few months to a few years.
Treatment might also be needed to help with feelings of depression or anxiety. Sleep disorders can also be treated.
Caregivers and family members may benefit from therapy and support groups.
Experts don’t know how to prevent Alzheimer disease. Most experts recommend a healthy, active lifestyle as the best way to protect your brain’s health. This includes taking part in physical and mental activities. Quitting smoking can also reduce your risk of getting dementia.
People with Alzheimer disease need to follow a full treatment plan to protect their health. Even though a loved one may have this disease, it is still important that they take care of their physical health.
You and your family may have many questions about living with Alzheimer disease. You can find information and support through the Alzheimer’s Association.