Perhaps you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and you’re not sure what that means. Here’s information about the different stages of the illness.
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia. In basic terms, it affects thinking, memory, and function.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s change over time, although the pace of the disease varies from person to person. While the illness can’t be cured or reversed, medications, exercise, and cognitive exercises might be able to slow the course.
Most people live four to ten years after diagnosis. The brain goes through many changes as the illness progresses, affecting thinking, speech, social skills, personality, and eventually ability to care for oneself.
Alzheimer’s is usually divided into three stages: mild, moderate, and severe. The stages help us understand the patient’s general abilities. Keep in mind this is a general guide; at times a person might not fit into a specific level.
In mild Alzheimer’s (early-stage), the affected individual can usually function independently. They might still live alone, work, drive, and actively participate in activities around them.
They have occasional memory lapses, like losing things or not remembering familiar names and words. This is frustrating, problematic at times, but not quite catastrophic.
Progression is slow. Over the course of the next few years, they might start having problems with complex daily tasks (like doing finances or driving), repeating themselves in conversations, and having more difficulty with word-finding. They also start making poor financial and personal choices, and often forget recent events until reminded. They sometimes get lost in familiar places. The person with Alzheimer’s doesn’t usually recognize that they have memory problems.
Despite all these challenges, they continue to socialize without difficulty and don’t have changes in personality.
In the moderate stage (middle-stage), the person with Alzheimer’s needs cues to perform activities of daily living (ADL’s), like grooming and bathing. In time they start needing help to do all ADL’s.
They become withdrawn or moody and develop difficulty remembering the more recent years in their life. They might not recognize friends or family members. Sometimes there are changes in personality, like irritability or paranoia. Family will notice their loved one acting in strange ways, like getting agitated and aggressive when someone tries to help with dressing. Often people with this illness become restless in the evenings; they tend to wander off and get lost.
As the disease progresses, bowel and bladder control is lost.
Moderate Alzheimer’s is usually the longest stage and can last for years. As the affected person’s disease worsens, they start needing close supervision.
In severe or advanced Alzheimer’s (late-stage), the patient becomes entirely dependent on others, needing extensive help with ADL’s.
Their thinking continues to worsen. They lose both short or long-term memory. They may lose the ability to carry on a conversation. Their speech is confusing. Eventually they lose awareness of their surroundings, as well as the ability to walk, eat, and swallow.
At this point they’re vulnerable to infections, especially urinary track infections and pneumonia.
Research and Help
If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with this disease, this information can be devastating. It’s important to remember that people with Alzheimer’s don’t usually suffer because of their illness; they’re often the happiest person in the room. They’re unaware they’re sick and are often content to just sit still doing nothing.
And there’s hope. Talk to your doctor about medications (cognitive enhancers) and other interventions (exercise, cognitive exercises, vitamins?) that can help. Also, remember scientists are investigating Alzheimer’s aggressively looking for treatments and cures. For more information about research, check out the Alzheimer Association’s page on research.
For help, call the Alzheimer Association’s hotline at 1 800 272 3900. The helpline is open anytime day or night and available for caregivers, patients, health care professionals, and the general public.
For more information on Alzheimer’s and dementia, check out the following articles: