As Alzheimer’s Progresses, Know What To Expect

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Man with Alzheimer's disease seems confused over the date

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Although some researchers have defined specific stages of Alzheimer’s disease, neurologist Christopher Janson, MD, explains that because Alzheimer’s is a progressive illness, “there really are an infinite number of stages to the disease. Every passing day means that more brain cells are lost.”

Disease progression typically looks like this:

Around age 65 you may begin to experience typical signs of aging: you forget someone’s name or where you placed the car keys. This is normal and should not be considered a sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

When Will I Notice Symptoms?

Changes in the brain related to Alzheimer’s begin years before any signs of the disease.

Persistent memory loss is often the earliest noticeable sign of disease, says Dr. Janson. It includes mild confusion with names, dates, and places, and the inability to remember commonly known information, like who was the first president of the United States. “This early stage of memory loss may last from months to years. You don’t retain information and frequently repeat yourself. You may forget to take your medications, for example.” In these early stages, Alzheimer’s disease progresses slowly. Your loved ones may not notice a change in you.

Over time, however, the symptoms become more noticeable. In addition to memory loss, it becomes more difficult to concentrate and pay attention, says Dr. Janson. “You may become lost or disoriented in places that are familiar to you.” Difficulty with decision-making also occurs. “It may take you a long time to make a trivial decision, or you’ll make obviously poor choices.” Eventually you may exhibit mood swings, changes in sleep patterns, hallucinations, or other abnormal behavior.

“Although these symptoms can be quite distressing, many can be managed with medication,” says Dr. Janson.

As the disease progresses, tasks which were once easy become increasingly difficult, like driving a car, using the TV remote, oven, washing machine, or tools. “If you own firearms or have risky hobbies, it can be quite dangerous,” warns Dr. Janson.

Over time you are no longer interested in hobbies and other things you once enjoyed. “Your language and ability to reason become severely affected,” Dr. Janson explains. It becomes more difficult for you to dress, bathe, and feed yourself.

Eventually you’re unable to care for yourself. These late stages require around-the-clock nursing care. This is when you become unable to speak intelligently or walk without help. Your body becomes physically rigid and you’re unable to sit up independently. Facial expressions change and sadly, smiles are replaced by grimaces.

What Is Alzheimer’s Life Expectancy?

On average, a person with Alzheimer’s lives four to eight years after diagnosis, but can live as long as 20 years, depending on other factors. Difficulty with swallowing leads to poor nutrition and contributes to eventual death. Common causes of death include infection, dehydration, pressure sores, and/or pneumonia.

What Are the Benefits To Seeking a Doctor’s Advice?

Research shows that when the family of someone with Alzheimer’s becomes educated about the disease and puts together a care plan, it can slow the onset of symptoms. It can also lower anxiety, depression, and stress for the family and caregivers.

Depending on the stage of disease, your doctor may be able to prescribe medication to ease symptoms. Your doctor can also put your family in touch with resources regarding in-home health services, long-term care facilities, palliative care, and hospice.

It's easy to get the care you need.

See a Premier Physician Network provider near you.