An Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis can be an emotional experience. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, a diagnosis doesn’t mean that life will drastically change overnight. With new treatments and medications, doctors can slow the progression of the disease. Understanding how the disease progresses and different treatment options will be the best way to prepare for the future and manage the diagnosis.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most commonly diagnosed form of dementia. In general, dementia patients will experience a gradual decline in their abilities to remember, think, problem-solve, speak, and respond. In the early stages of the disease, an Alzheimer’s patient might experience some problems with day-to-day tasks. Patients will typically depend on others for daily care in the later stages. It is important to note that Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive illness that will impact each person differently. There are seven stages of Alzheimer’s disease. While some might progress through the stages quickly, it could take as long as 20 years for others. Let’s take a look at the potential progression of dementia and understand how patients might be impacted.
Typical Disease Progression
With 5.8 million people living with Alzheimer’s in the United States, doctors have developed seven major clinical stages of the disease. Known as the Global Deterioration Scale, these stages help with the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Health care professionals use the stages to gauge where patients are in the disease progression and help family members and loved ones understand what to expect. In general terms, mild or early-stage Alzheimer’s can last from 2-4 years. The moderate or middle-stage of the disease can last anywhere from 2-10 years, while severe or late-stage Alzheimer’s can average from 1-3 years. As discussed, each person is different and will experience memory loss and other symptoms at different rates.
Family history or medical screening may identify biomarkers that indicate a risk for Alzheimer’s. A doctor will interview the patient about memory problems and help determine if the problems are symptoms of aging or related to Alzheimer’s. During the preclinical stage, the patient is fully independent and might not even know they have the disease. The person might not ever develop symptoms or remain in this stage for years or decades.
In stages, two and three of the disease, patients and family members might notice memory problems will be very mild but will gradually progress. More than just symptoms of old age, more frequent memory problems could lead to frustrations. In stages two and three, the person will still control daily activities. Stage three will increase memory issues and problems with word recall, location identification, and concentration.
Moderate Cognitive Decline
Stage four is when doctors will make a more definitive Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. The most significant symptom at this stage is a person’s inability to manage complex activities for daily life. This stage can last for many years and see patients struggle with day and time recognition, changes in sleep patterns, and increased anxiety and confusion. Patients in stage five will typically experience increased difficulties performing daily tasks and severe memory deficits. Stage five patients typically still remember their names and close family members. However, they will have trouble remembering major events and life details.
Patients in stage six of the disease will show signs of severe cognitive decline. Patients in this stage will experience difficulties dressing, taking care of personal hygiene, and using the restroom. There may also be increased fear, anxiety, and feelings of suspiciousness. In the final stage of Alzheimer’s, patients may lose the ability to speak or move and might become completely unresponsive at times. Patients with severe Alzheimer’s will need help with almost all daily tasks and will be at an increased risk of pneumonia and other respiratory issues due to the time spent lying down.
Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s can be a very emotional experience. It will be critical that you understand how your loved one’s disease is progressing so that you can better grasp the things they are experiencing and better prepare to help them.