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If you or a family member are living with Alzheimer’s disease, you know that the condition causes a variety of challenging symptoms as it progresses. Although experts differ on the specific number of phases of Alzheimer’s, they agree that individuals with the disease experience a similar trajectory.
Some Alzheimer’s authorities break the disease into three distinct phases, while others such as Mayo Clinic use a five-phase approach. Many organizations — including the Alzheimer’s Association and many health-care providers — prefer framing the condition with a highly detailed, seven-phase description. Despite variances in naming and levels of specificity, the different models tend to group symptoms into general stages including preclinical, mild, moderate and severe.
However you prefer to think about the condition, Alzheimer’s disease causes profound symptoms for millions of people. In the United States, more than 5 million individuals live with the disease, while more than 10 million act as caregivers for relatives with the condition. To honor people with Alzheimer’s disease and to raise awareness among members of the public, November is recognized as Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.
For most individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, the condition begins slowly and worsens over a number of years as it gradually affects judgment, language, thinking, memory, problem-solving and other functions. Disease progression can take place over more than a decade, with different symptoms and behaviors manifesting as the condition takes hold.
Generally, the early stage of the disease — when symptoms typically remain mild — may take place over two to four years. The moderate or middle stage of the disease can take two to 10 years to progress, while the severe or late stage may occur over one to three years. An individual with Alzheimer’s lives an average of about four to eight years following diagnosis, but some people with the condition may live for up to two decades after diagnosis.
No cure exists for Alzheimer’s, but by understanding the stages of the disease — and the accompanying signs and symptoms — you can begin to learn to manage the condition and explore treatment options for yourself or your family member.
Preclinical Alzheimer’s Disease
Before doctors can detect any symptoms of the disease, Alzheimer’s often begins to affect individuals with the condition. During a preclinical stage, which can last for years or even decades, an individual may experience changes in the brain that lay the foundation for the progression of the disease.
If you or your family member are in the preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s, you may not notice any symptoms or changes. However, new technologies can identify protein deposits that signify Alzheimer’s, and such early detection may play an essential role in the future diagnosis and treatment of the disease.
Genetic testing also may indicate a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease — especially the early-onset variant — and specific health markers may be used to support an Alzheimer’s diagnosis once symptoms begin to manifest.
Mild Alzheimer’s Disease
In the early stage of the disease, individuals may continue to live on their own and may work, drive and participate in social activities. However, an individual in the early clinical phase of Alzheimer’s may also notice symptoms such as problems with memory, including forgetting often-used words.
At this stage, individuals often experience mild cognitive impairment, which can cause mild — although noticeable — changes in certain abilities, such as properly judging the amount of time required for a task. Individuals with mild cognitive impairment may also misjudge the steps needed to complete a particular task and making decisions may become harder. Not everyone who experiences mild cognitive impairment is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
The disease, in its early stages, may begin to impede daily tasks, and friends and family members may start to notice that an individual faces new challenges. Common problems — which may become detectable by medical authorities during this stage of the disease — may include difficulty remembering names of new people, forgetting recently learned information, losing valuable personal items and trouble organizing or planning.
Even at this early phase of the disease, medical experts have not yet uncovered a way to reverse it. However, armed with knowledge, individuals and their families can begin treatment and interventions that may help slow the progression of the disease, and they can begin to create a plan for living well with the condition.
Many individuals with Alzheimer’s are diagnosed in the mild stage when they begin to demonstrate significant problems with memory, problem-solving and daily functions. If you are a caregiver for a relative at this stage of Alzheimer’s, you may find that the individual continues to remember important information such as events and addresses. However, your family member may need assistance with certain tasks, including buying groceries and managing finances.
Moderate Alzheimer’s Disease
The moderate stage of Alzheimer’s disease typically lasts the longest — often for many years. As the disease continues to progress, an individual with the condition will need additional care.
If you or your family member are in the moderate stage of Alzheimer’s, they may continue to remember many details of their life. However, they may also begin to have more difficulty with day-to-day activities, including managing finances. You may notice that they get frustrated or angry because they cannot remember words, as damage to the brain’s nerve cells creates challenges in expressing thoughts and completing routine activities.
You may notice that a family member at this stage of Alzheimer’s begins to neglect personal hygiene tasks such as bathing. Additional symptoms during the moderate stage of Alzheimer’s may include:
Your family member at this stage of the disease may require significant help with daily tasks, and he or she may no longer be able to live on their own. The individual may need assistance with hygiene and other personal care tasks, and he or she may start sleeping more during the day. In addition, your family member may be at risk for wandering at night.
Severe Alzheimer’s Disease
In the severe — and final — stage of the disease, individuals with the condition may no longer participate in conversations, although some may continue to say some words and phrases. Responding to the environment becomes difficult, and some individuals may lose control of their movements.
If your family member is in the severe stage of Alzheimer’s, you may observe that he or she loses the ability to communicate about feelings of pain. In addition, your relative may demonstrate noticeable changes in personality. People in the final stage of the disease usually need significant assistance with their day-to-day activities and personal care.
In this last stage of Alzheimer’s disease, individuals may lose the ability to sit, walk and swallow, and they may lose awareness of experiences and surroundings. They may also become more susceptible to infections like pneumonia.
While Alzheimer’s disease currently has no known cure or method of prevention, there are steps you can take that may help delay the progression of the condition. New research indicates that some treatments that may help — in addition to medications — include omega-3 fatty acids, cognitive training, antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E, hormones, exercise and cardiovascular treatments.
Rather than attempting to cure the disease, the goal of treatment is to help manage behavior and mental functioning while slowing the rate of advancement of symptoms. Some medications may assist with regulating neurotransmitters, which may aid communication skills, memory and thinking. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications may help control behavioral problems and challenges with mood.
However, medications are not cures and may stop working for some individuals. Also, your family member with Alzheimer’s may need reminders and assistance to take medications appropriately.
Moderate exercise — including walking — in a safe environment with supervision may help boost mood and may provide additional benefits, such as improved health of muscles, joints and the heart. Therapy and counseling also may benefit some individuals with Alzheimer’s by enhancing feelings of comfort. In addition, counseling may help make the caregiving process easier for family members.
Serving as a caregiver for an individual with Alzheimer’s can be stressful and may result in a range of emotions. If you care for a family member with this condition, consider seeking outside support and assistance, along with regular breaks from your caregiving responsibilities. By understanding what to expect at each stage of the disease, you can reduce stress both for you and for your relative with Alzheimer’s disease.
Supportive Living at Tessera of Brandon
At Tessera of Brandon, you’ll find a modern, supportive living community with every aspect designed to promote your family member’s comfort, joy, safety and maximum independence. With a variety of options every day for engagement and connection with others, we offer a welcoming, personalized environment to help residents thrive. To find out more about our Valeo memory care neighborhood, please contact us today.