Signs & Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

Many people experience mild forgetfulness or memory delays, which are part of the normal aging process. We all have occasional difficulty remembering a word or someone’s name. A person with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, however, will find such symptoms becoming more and more frequent and severe. 

For example, any of us could forget where we placed our car keys. Someone with Alzheimer’s disease may place the keys in an unusual spot, like the refrigerator. Or, he or she may not remember the purpose of the keys.

Early Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease

Signs that may point to Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Changes in personality
  • Impaired gait or movement
  • Language difficulties
  • Low energy
  • Memory loss
  • Mood swings
  • Problems with attention and orientation
  • Problems with simple mathematical tasks

In general, it may be time to seek evaluation by a qualified physician if the memory loss or other symptom for you or a loved one:

  • Increases in frequency or severity
  • Interferes with daily activities (such as employment tasks or family chores)
  • Makes an impression on friends and family

Stages and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease usually progresses gradually, lasting two to 20 years, with an average of seven years in the United States. Scientists now know that Alzheimer’s disease exists in a person’s body long before symptoms appear. Researchers call this the pre-clinical/pre-symptomatic stage. Once symptoms do appear, they increase in severity as a person with Alzheimer’s moves from the earliest to the final stages of the disease.

The stages of clinical diagnosis and their symptoms include:

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) Due to Alzheimer’s/Prodromal

Scientists have identified a condition between normal age-related memory loss and dementia called Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). Individuals with MCI have memory problems but are able to perform routine activities. MCI often leads to Alzheimer’s, but not all patients with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s.

Symptoms may include:

  • Memory problems noticed by others
  • Mood conditions such as depression, anxiety, irritability, or apathy
  • Poor performance on cognitive tests

Mild (Stage 1)

Early in their illness, people with Alzheimer’s disease may:

  • Be slow in their speech and understanding
  • Experience minor memory loss and mood swings
  • Have difficulty learning new things
  • Lose energy and spontaneity, although others may not notice
  • Lose their train of thought mid-sentence
  • Still perform basic activities but need assistance with more complicated tasks

Moderate (Stage 2)

At this stage, a person begins to be disabled by the disease.

  • Although individuals with Alzheimer’s can recall the distant past, recent events are difficult for them to remember.
  • They have difficulty comprehending day, time, and location.
  • They may invent new words as they lose old ones.
  • They may not recognize formerly familiar faces.

Severe (Stage 3)

In this final stage, Alzheimer’s patients:

  • Are unable to chew and swallow
  • Become bedridden and vulnerable to pneumonia and other illnesses
  • Become more and more unresponsive
  • Lose bodily control and need constant care
  • Recognize no one

Eventually, an Alzheimer’s patient succumbs to coma and death, either from the end stage of Alzheimer’s disease, or from a co-occurring medical condition like pneumonia.

Because an elderly patient with Alzheimer’s may have several medical conditions, and because there is still a stigma associated with this disease, some scientists believe that Alzheimer’s is often overlooked or underreported as the primary cause of death on state death certificates. The disease was listed as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States in 2013, according to the most recent data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, some studies suggest that Alzheimer’s may actually be the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer.

The Importance of a Physician Evaluation

If you suspect that you or a loved one has a memory problem, you want to seek advice and a thorough evaluation by a physician with extensive knowledge, experience, and interest in dementia and memory problems. It’s important to get early medical attention if you can.  

First, the physician can rule out other possible causes of memory loss that warrant their own treatment. These can include:

  • Another progressive condition like Parkinson’s disease
  • Drug interactions
  • Head injury
  • Infections
  • Nutritional or metabolic disorders

Second, although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, a doctor may prescribe certain medications to help slow the progression or alleviate some of the symptoms of the disease. This treatment is most effective in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s disease, so early screening and diagnosis are important.