Alzheimer's Disease: Symptoms And Causes

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated April 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Rates of diagnosis for Alzheimer's disease are increasing as people live longer than ever before. It is one of several different disorders that older adults may develop which affect memory and cognitive functioning. No matter what age you are, it’s natural to forget things from time to time. However, showing significant signs of memory loss or confusion could indicate a bigger problem at hand. Knowing Alzheimer's facts is essential in recognizing and understanding this progressive disease. Discovering Alzheimer's disease early can lead to a prompt diagnosis, effective treatment, and a higher quality of life. We’ll be discussing common symptoms of the disease as well as potential risk factors that may make a person more prone to developing it. Read more if you want to learn more about Alzheimer's and dementia.

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Navigating Alzheimer's can be challenging

What is Alzheimer's?

Most people think that Alzheimer's and dementia are the same, yes, they are related, but there's a slight difference between dementia and Alzheimer's disease. So, what is Alzheimer’s disease? Alzheimer's disease is a brain disorder that slowly destroys memory. Named after Alois Alzheimer, the psychiatrist who identified the first case, it is the most common form of dementia and primarily affects older individuals. 

As many as 80% of dementia cases could be attributed to Alzheimer's disease, making it the most common cause of dementia. In contrast to other forms of dementia, Alzheimer's symptoms develop slowly and worsen over time as brain cells are destroyed. Although the symptoms do not entirely go away with treatment, it may help slow the progression and manage the disease.

Alzheimer's is considered a progressive disease because symptoms show up gradually and appear quite mild at first. The symptoms then worsen slowly over the course of several years and increasingly affect the person's ability to function. Eventually, many people with Alzheimer's disease become unable to care for themselves independently.

Alzheimer's symptoms

The most associated symptom of Alzheimer's is memory loss, which can appear during conversations and routine daily activities. The typical preliminary diagnosis is mild cognitive impairment or MCI. This may remain stable for years, or progress into Alzheimer’s and related dementias. While memory problems are among the first signs of the disease, Alzheimer's progresses over time with other symptoms. It is classified as having three stages that worsen through the early, middle, and later stages. Aside from memory loss and its associated effects, other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Being confused or disoriented
  • Physical problems with walking and coordination
  • Showing frustration
  • Sudden mood swings
  • Anxiety, depression, and anger
  • Symptoms get worse at night

In the early stages of last stages of Alzheimer's disease, you might notice mild dementia, but as the disease progresses, the person loses most of their abilities. This includes no longer being able to care for themselves. They may forget how to dress or make food. They may even forget that they are hungry and need to consume food at all. 

Alzheimer's symptoms also appear to contribute to an earlier death. As a result, in the United States, the disorder is considered the seventh leading cause of death. Most people with Alzheimer's die within an average of eight years after the symptoms become significantly noticeable. The earlier death rates are due to changes in functioning, some of which lead to poorer health, especially in the later stages of the disease. Depending on the individual’s age and general health, survival rates range from four to twenty years.


Alzheimer's causes

Scientists and researchers are still unsure about all the factors that can lead to this disease. It is known that genetics and various environmental factors likely play roles. Someone whose family developed Alzheimer's is much more likely to develop it, too. However, there is no way to predict for certain who will develop the disorder and who will not. How to prevent Alzheimer's? There is no surefire strategy to prevent the development of this disease, but making healthy lifestyle choices can reduce your risk.

Age is the greatest known risk factor for developing Alzheimer's disease. Most cases are diagnosed in people aged 65 or older. However, some people under age 65 do start to show early signs of the disease. This is called early-onset Alzheimer's and affects approximately 200,000 Americans.

Alzheimer's disease causes memory loss and significant declines in cognitive functioning because the tissue of the brain is slowly breaking down. This happens as a result of two types of damage to the brain, one being the damage that occurs to the development of neurofibrillary tangles. The second type of damage is due to protein deposits, called beta-amyloid plaques, that build up in the brain and affect its ability to function properly.

Again, researchers are not entirely sure what causes these types of damage. There is some research that suggests a protein in the blood called apolipoprotein E (or ApoE) may be at least partly responsible. That protein is used by the body to help move cholesterol in the blood. There are multiple types of ApoE, and it seems certain forms contribute to brain damage. Perhaps related to the ApoE protein, people who have high cholesterol and high blood pressure are at greater risk of developing Alzheimer's. A history of head injury also seems to relate to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's, but it is not clear exactly why. The Alzheimer’s Association is a nonprofit that is currently leading the way to fund research into both the causes and treatment of this insidious disease that is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. 

Alzheimer's vs. Normal changes in aging

Everyone forgets things sometimes. You might forget an appointment you were meaning to attend or misplace your keys and wallet. Just as everyone forgets things, everyone will experience some decline in memory and cognitive functioning as part of their normal aging. Normal memory loss does not usually prevent a person from living a typical life. However, when memory loss is more severe and starts to get in the way of day-to-day functioning, then it might be a sign of a more serious disorder.

Signs of general dementia

In the medical field, the term dementia is used to describe many symptoms. These dementia symptoms can include memory impairment, reductions in reasoning and judgment, difficulty with language, and other changes in thinking skills. When someone has dementia, their symptoms usually start gradually and slowly worsen over time. As Alzheimer’s worsens, brain and nerve cells are destroyed and can begin to impair a person's ability to function. It can eventually affect their functioning both at work and home.

Specific signs of dementia include:

  • Repeatedly asking the same question or making the same statements.
  • Forgetting common or frequently used words when speaking.
  • Impaired reasoning skills.
  • Mixing up words for different items.
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks, such that they take longer to complete.
  • Putting items in inappropriate places and forgetting where they were left.
  • Frequently getting lost, even in familiar places.
  • Changes in mood and behavior for no clear reason.

As noted, these symptoms help to define dementia, as well as Alzheimer's disease. However, other conditions can similarly cause these symptoms. Other conditions include vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and Lewy body dementia. Each of these conditions is different from one another and from Alzheimer's Disease.

Alzheimer's evaluation and diagnosis

If you or a loved one sees signs and symptoms of the early stage of Alzheimer's development, it is important to visit a medical professional instead of doing an at-home Alzheimer's test. Doctors will do a complete medical assessment to help determine the exact diagnosis and plan for treatment. The evaluation will include gathering medical history, testing mental health status, assessing mood to rule out other mental health disorders, a physical exam, neurological tests, and other tests or scans of the brain and body. As the doctor rules out other conditions, they may eventually diagnose Alzheimer's.

Alzheimer's treatments

Unfortunately, Alzheimer's disease still has no known cure, and there is no way to slow the progression of the brain-involved disease once it starts. However, research has developed treatments that can slow the progression of symptoms. This can help to improve and extend the quality of life for people who have Alzheimer's. It can help them maintain independent functioning for longer and reduce the amount of responsibility for caregivers. Researchers continue to find even more effective treatments.

In addition to medications used to slow the progression of early Alzheimer's dementia-like symptoms, therapy can also be utilized to help people maintain their functioning. Some individuals with the disease choose to enter assisted living care. This may become more necessary in the later stages of the disease when family caregivers are no longer fully equipped for the person's increasing medical and physical needs. Assisted living facilities have staff and support in place to provide the person with appropriate care.

Navigating Alzheimer's can be challenging

How online therapy can help

Suspecting a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer's Disease, or receiving confirmation that you have a disorder, can be upsetting. This is true whether you’ve received the diagnosis yourself or have a loved one with it. Many people choose to seek therapeutic support, which you can have through BetterHelp, an online therapy platform. 

Caring for a loved one who has Alzheimer’s or related dementia can be difficult. You may have less time to take care of yourself but doing so is still essential. Online therapy allows you to get care according to your busy schedule. You can connect in a way that’s most convenient for you and reach out on the days that you need extra support. 

Online therapy can be useful for helping people with a variety of problems. One study assessed the effectiveness of an internet-delivered intervention for family caregivers of people living with dementia. The results showed that caregivers experienced “significantly lower symptoms of depression and anxiety,” suggesting that online-based therapeutic options can be efficacious in improving the quality of life for caregivers of those with dementia. Recent research has further demonstrated the effectiveness of online CBT with therapist support for improving mental health and mood in caregivers of people with dementia


Normal aging brings with it some brain changes in memory and cognitive functioning for everyone. However, if you notice that you or someone you love is experiencing dementia-like symptoms that seem to be affecting your ability to function, it is important to seek medical and psychological evaluation. As noted, such symptoms could be due to many different disorders, though the most common cause of mild to moderate dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. No matter the specific diagnosis, it is important to determine the cause and start treatment as soon as possible. An online therapist can help you process a diagnosis more effectively, whether it’s you or a loved one who has received it.    

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