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Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that causes memory loss, confusion, and changes in personality. It is a type of dementia. At first, people with this disease have only a small amount of memory loss and confusion. This is called “cognitive decline.” Over time, however, these symptoms get more severe.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, the disease progresses through about seven stages of symptoms. In the final stage, people with Alzheimer’s disease may be unable to talk with family members or know what is going on around them.
This disease cannot be cured. Doctors and caregivers often focus treatment on slowing the process and ensuring a good quality of life for everyone involved.
Alzheimer’s disease is becoming more common as the general population gets older and lives longer. Alzheimer's disease usually affects people older than 65. A small number of people have “early-onset” Alzheimer’s disease, which starts when they are in their 30s or 40s.
People live for an average of eight 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’s disease. Genes, environment, lifestyle, and overall health may all play a role.
The Alzheimer's Association identifies seven stages of Alzheimer's disease and says that each person moves through the disease stages in his or her own way. Knowing these stages helps doctors and family members make decisions about how to care for someone who has Alzheimer’s disease.
Stage 1: Normal function
In this stage, few signs of the disease may be apparent. But changes in the brain may have started.
Stage 2: Very mild cognitive decline
Symptoms at this stage include mild forgetfulness. This may seem like the mild forgetfulness that often comes with aging.
Stage 3: Mild cognitive decline
At this stage, a person may have problems:
Remembering a name
Recalling recent events
Remembering where he or she put a valuable object
Stage 4: Moderate cognitive decline
At this stage, symptoms include:
Increasing difficulty remembering events
Difficulty with challenging math problems, such as counting backward from 100 by 7s
Problems managing money
Difficulty with planning complicated events, such as a dinner
Forgetting one’s own life story
Becoming moody or withdrawn
Stage 5: Moderately severe cognitive decline
At this stage, a person may:
Forget his or her address or phone number
Lose track of time and place
Need help choosing the right clothing
Have difficulty with easy math challenges, such as counting backward from 20 by 2s
Stage 6: Severe cognitive decline
Remember his or her name, but not details about his or her own life
Know that some people are familiar, but not remember their names
Forget the names of spouse or child
Need help with getting dressed
Need help with daily activities like brushing teeth
Have trouble with bathroom routines
Change his or her personality
Have problems with the way he or she sees the world, perhaps believing that caregivers are imposters or a threat
Have actions that he or she repeats, such as wringing the hands
Wander or get lost
Stage 7: Very severe cognitive decline
At this stage, a person loses many of his or her abilities. He or she may be able to say some words or phrases, but not carry on a conversation. He or she needs help with all activities.
The early signs of Alzheimer’s disease may not be obvious to anyone except the person with the disease and the people closest to him. Even then, the symptoms may be confused with normal changes that come with age.
To make a diagnosis, doctors usually do on an interview with you that uses several types of tests to find out how well your brain is working. These are often memory tests. They may seem like puzzles or word games. Your doctor might also take a medical history and order some tests to rule out other possible causes of memory loss or confusion. He or she might talk to your family members about symptoms they have noticed.
Treatment varies based on your age, overall health, medical history, symptoms, and preferences. Some medications can slow the progress of the disease in some people. These may work for a few months to several years.
Treatment might also be needed to help you 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’s disease. Most experts recommend a healthy, active lifestyle as the best way to protect your brain’s health.
People with Alzheimer’s disease need to follow a comprehensive treatment plan to protect their health. Even though you may have this disease, it is still important to take care of your physical health.
You and your family may have many questions about living with Alzheimer’s disease. You can find information and support for yourself and your caregivers through the Alzheimer’s Association.