Ten Important Things To Know About Alzheimer’s Progression

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated August 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia, a degenerative brain condition that causes loss of memory, cognitive function, and reasoning. Understanding how degenerative conditions progress can be essential if you or someone you love is at risk of Alzheimer's disease or has been diagnosed.

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10 Areas Of Focus On Alzheimer's Progression  

Approximately 33% of American adults are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease by the time they reach 85 years old. With one-third of the population experiencing this disease, people may look to understand the condition better. If you have a loved one who is living with Alzheimer's or you have been diagnosed, you may have questions and concerns about this topic. Below are ten areas to keep in mind regarding this condition's progression. 

1. There Are Many Cognitive Symptoms Of Alzheimer's Disease

Because Alzheimer's most often affects older adults, it can often be misunderstood as a part of the aging process. It may be normal for your memory to decline slightly and to have difficulty with some daily activities. However, Alzheimer's can cause severe impairment and worsens with time. The cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer's include but are not limited to the following: 

  • Memory loss that disrupts your daily life
  • Difficulty making plans 
  • Difficulty solving problems or making decisions
  • Changes in mood and behavior
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Leaving items in strange places, like putting your keys in the refrigerator
  • Losing items daily
  • Taking longer to complete daily activities
  • Confusing words for specific items
  • Forgetting certain words
  • Asking the same questions repeatedly

2. Alzheimer's Disease Is More Than Forgetfulness

When you think of Alzheimer's disease, you may think of memory problems or forgetfulness. However, these symptoms reflect only one part of the disease's effects on the body and brain. Some individuals with Alzheimer's disease have trouble getting dressed, lose their agility, or lose the ability to swallow, especially as the condition progresses.

In the early stages of the disease, you may notice that minor tasks are more complicated. For example, you may make frequent errors in math computation, such as balancing a checkbook. You may require support driving or getting from one place to another. Setting the microwave to cook your food may be more confusing than usual, and recording a television program may become impossible. 

Alzheimer's can also cause difficulty judging distances or figuring out the color of an item. You may experience poor judgment or make impulsive decisions. If you think the symptoms you're experiencing point to Alzheimer's disease, it may be beneficial to talk to your doctor about a neurological referral. 

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3. There Are Multiple Stages Of Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease can develop slowly, and one may not see the signs of the disease until it has progressed. It can be best to catch Alzheimer's in the early stages so the individual can slow down the progress with medical support. 

There are five stages of the disease, but each person is different, and some may progress differently than others. Some people may stay in the first stage for several years, while others may go from the first to the second stage within months. The typical stages of Alzheimer's disease include the following. 

Preclinical Alzheimer's Disease

The first stage of the disease primarily affects short-term memory, so it may go unnoticed. Because memory loss can be a regular part of getting older, individuals may ignore the following symptoms: 

  • Slight difficulty with activities like work or getting dressed
  • Difficulty learning new topics 
  • A lack of motivation
  • Misplacing items 
  • Difficulty remembering names
  • Difficulty with abstract thinking
  • Slight difficulty paying attention
  • Loss of interest in some previously enjoyed activities 

Alzheimer's Disease With Mild Cognitive Impairment

In the second stage of Alzheimer's, an individual's symptoms gradually worsen until they affect them at work and home. Loved ones may become concerned, while the individual may not notice the impairment themselves. The symptoms include:

  • Requiring more support with planning or finances
  • Bouts of anxiety, aggression, or depression
  • Struggling to find the right words in conversations
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Difficulty making positive judgment calls
  • Difficulty finding places on a map 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Forgetting appointments
  • Not remembering recent conversations or events
  • Difficulty recalling details of significant events
  • Further lack of motivation and lack of interest

Alzheimer's Disease With Mild Dementia

The third stage of Alzheimer's disease may be much more noticeable to others as the individual's memory worsens and they lose more cognitive ability. These symptoms may include the following: 

  • Getting lost in unfamiliar places
  • Increased difficulty finding words when talking
  • Asking the same questions repeatedly 
  • Further signs of depression and anxiety
  • Delusional thoughts 
  • Inability to remember significant world events
  • An inability to manage finances and medication
  • Difficulty making meals
  • Frequent forgetful and confused behaviors 
  • Increased lack of motivation and interest 

Alzheimer's Disease With Moderate Dementia

In the fourth stage, the individual's symptoms may become apparent to everyone around them and less to themselves. Their safety may become an issue as they stop being able to care for themselves. Their coordination worsens, and they may wander off and get lost. Symptoms can include the following: 

  • More frequent bouts of delusion
  • Frequent disorientation 
  • Not knowing the date or time 
  • Wandering off
  • Getting lost at home
  • Making up words and stories when loss of memory occurs 
  • Repeating stories and memories
  • Difficulty remembering phone numbers and addresses
  • Repetitive behavior, such as wringing their hands
  • Inability to fall asleep or stay asleep
  • Restlessness, agitation, and aggression 
  • Difficulty remembering friends and family members 
  • Mistaking strangers for friends and family members 
  • Requiring support to get dressed 
  • A lack of interest and motivation 

Alzheimer's Disease With Severe Dementia

In the final stage of Alzheimer's, an individual may require supervision and caregiving at all moments and struggle to get out of bed. They may not be able to dress or feed themselves, and some may not be able to swallow or move around. At this stage, caregivers often focus on keeping the individual comfortable. Symptoms can include: 

  • Deteriorating muscle mass
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Incontinence
  • Inability to hold up the head or smile 
  • A requirement for assistance with daily activities like eating and dressing
  • Limited verbal ability to one or a few words 
  • Chronic and extreme exhaustion
  • Difficulty sitting or walking 
  • Stiffening of the muscles and lack of reflexes
  • Extreme apathy

The final stage of Alzheimer's ends in death, as Alzheimer's is a degenerative condition. 

4. The Cause Of Alzheimer's Is Not Fully Understood 

The cause of Alzheimer's disease is not entirely understood yet, but doctors have found some risk factors and know what occurs in the brain after death from Alzheimer's. The death of brain cells in the brain causes the symptoms of the disease, often caused by tangles of nerve cells and plaques made by a protein called beta-amyloid. Although the causes of the symptoms are known, it is unknown why these changes occur. 

5. There Are Various Treatments For Alzheimer's Disease

Whether you are an individual diagnosed with Alzheimer's or a loved one, finding the best treatment for Alzheimer's disease may be a priority for you. Treatment often focuses on preventing the progress of specific symptoms, such as memory loss and cognitive decline. A few treatment options available may include the following: 

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors 
  • Antidepressants 
  • NMDA antagonists 
  • Sleep aids 
  • Anti-anxiety medications 
  • Antipsychotics 

6. There Are Alternative Treatments For Alzheimer's Disease 

Some alternative treatments have been used in treating the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Medical experts and the FDA have not approved these treatments, and there is no significant evidence that they are effective. However, with medical guidance, individuals might try them as a last resort. Below are some options: 

  • Coconut oil
  • Marijuana
  • Omega-3 
  • Coenzyme-Q10
  • Coral Calcium
  • Huperzine A, 
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Tramiprosate
  • Phosphatidylserine
  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy
  • Light therapy
  • Music therapy

Please consult your doctor before trying an alternative treatment, as some may interact poorly with medications or current medical treatment. 

7. There Is No Current Cure, But A Cure May Be Developed In The Future 

While there is no known cure for Alzheimer's disease, there are some treatments that experts believe may eventually be part of a cure in the future. New treatment options may include pimavanserin, AADvac1 (a vaccine that attacks abnormal proteins), and JNJ-54861911, a medication that targets the enzyme that makes beta-amyloid. You can keep updated on current treatments for Alzheimer's on the Alzheimer's Association's website

8. You May Prevent Alzheimer's Disease

Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's, individuals may be able to prevent the disease or prolong its onset. Since humans live longer than they used to and have better technology, the incidences of Alzheimer's disease have risen. However, there are also more ways to prevent the progression, including the following: 

  • Treat anxiety or stress immediately
  • Work through traumatic stress 
  • See your doctor regularly
  • Be social
  • Keep your mind active
  • Prevent head trauma
  • Do not smoke
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule
  • Eat healthily
  • Exercise and keep active

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

9. Games And Activities May Benefit Alzheimer's 

Although there is no cure, there are games and activities that may reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, including but not limited to the following:

  • Gardening
  • Writing
  • Reading
  • Crafts
  • Painting
  • Social activities
  • Housework
  • Laughter
  • Exercises like walking or stretching
  • Yoga
  • Puzzles
  • Dominos
  • Computer games
  • Board games
  • Card games
  • Bingo
  • Memory exercises 
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10. Support Is Available For Caregivers And Those With Alzheimer's 

Mental health symptoms can accompany Alzheimer's, including anxiety and depression. In addition, being diagnosed with this condition or loving someone who has started progressing in their disease can be challenging. In these cases, working with a therapist may benefit caregivers and those they love with Alzheimer's. 

Alzheimer's and caregiving can make it challenging to set up outside appointments. For this reason, some people prefer online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp, which allows you to attend therapy from home. Online therapy may also be more accessible, allowing individuals to choose between phone, video, or chat sessions and receive worksheets and journal prompts from home. 

For caregivers, mental burnout can be a common symptom of caring for another individual. In these cases, studies show that online therapy can treat burnout as effectively as in-person counseling can. Access to care from a safe environment may also reduce the burnout or stress of having too many appointments. 

Takeaway

Alzheimer's progression is not the same for everyone, and research is ongoing to find effective treatments. If you're caring for someone with Alzheimer's, talking to a therapist can help you manage the challenges you face every day and those to come. If you have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, you're not alone. Support is available for all impacted by this condition.

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