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Warning Signs of Alzheimer's Disease

Rudolph C. Hatfield, PhD., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Researchers continue to make discoveries regarding the changes in the brain that occur in Alzheimer's disease. According to organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the National Institute on Health, and the Alzheimer's Association, it now seems very likely that the changes in the brain that happen in people who develop Alzheimer's disease begin many years before serious problems with memory and other areas of cognition are diagnosed.

For most people, the symptoms first appear during their early or mid-60s. People who have early onset Alzheimer's disease may begin to see changes as early as their mid-30s. The very first symptoms that occur in people with Alzheimer's disease will be different from person to person, but memory problems are typically the early signs of developing Alzheimer's disease. Often people have mild problems with:

  • remembering new information
  • trying to remember a word and having it right on the tip of their tongue
  • other areas of cognition such as having minor problems with reasoning
  • visual spatial skills (understanding the relationships of physical objects in one's environment).

As the disease gets worse, the problems get more severe.

It does not make sense just to list a group of warning symptoms of Alzheimer's disease without at least trying to categorize them by the stages of the disease. Using the stages from the DSM-5 allows for the categorization of symptoms according to the stage of the disease.

Prior to being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease people most often display:

  • Mild forgetfulness.
  • Problems remembering words or names.
  • Periods of mild confusion or showing blank looks on their face as if they cannot remember or figure out what they are trying to do.
  • Increased depression or even increased frustration that is out of character for the person.

Because most people display these issues from time to time even if they are not developing Alzheimer's disease these early symptoms are often ignored. When people are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease the symptoms are often more noticeable and occur more regularly.

Mild Alzheimer's Disease

In the early stages of Alzheimer's disease people begin to display problems that they may have occasionally displayed from time to time before, but they begin to display them on a more regular basis. The most common symptoms of mild Alzheimer's disease include:

  • Problems remembering new information. In the early stages of Alzheimer's disease people can remember things that happened in the past, but have difficulty making new memories.
  • Problems with judgment that result in uncharacteristic bad decisions for the person.
  • A loss of being spontaneous or thinking out of the box that did not occur regularly before.
  • Repeating themselves or asking the same questions repeatedly.
  • Losing things more regularly than usual such as misplacing keys, clothes, bills, etc.
  • Getting lost more frequently.
  • Mood changes such as appearing more depressed or having problems with anxiety that are out of character for the person.
  • Increases in aggression or angry outbursts that are out of character for the person.

At this phase many people become diagnosed with the disease.

Moderate Alzheimer's Disease

In the moderate stages of the disease people need more supervision. Symptoms often include:

  • Increased problems with memory. Even older well-established memories may be harder to recall. People may have difficulty recognizing familiar people such as family members.
  • The person may begin to repeat themselves over and over.
  • Extreme difficulty carrying out tasks that require more than one step to complete.
  • Serious difficulty trying to learn new tasks.
  • Serious difficulty with arithmetic, reading, and even writing letters.
  • Seriously shortened attention spans.
  • Increased confusion, especially in new situations.
  • Difficulty organizing one's thoughts or thinking logically.
  • Increased impulsive behaviors.
  • Problems with restlessness, irritability, and tearfulness which occur later in the day more often than they occur in the morning.
  • Problems with depression or anxiety.
  • Problems with hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there), paranoia (being suspicious that others are out to hurt them), and delusions (beliefs that are irrational).

Late Stages of Alzheimer's Disease

In the severe stages of Alzheimer's disease people are completely dependent on others to help them. They begin to experience problems with physical functioning as well as severe problems with thinking. In the very late stages of Alzheimer's disease people are often bedridden. Late stage symptoms include:

  • Severe problems with remembering new and old information.
  • Severe problems with language, particularly with understanding language and speaking in meaningful sentences.
  • Inability to make personal decisions.
  • Severe weight loss.
  • Numerous infections.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • The appearance of a childlike state where the person begins to act like a toddler when around others.
  • Increased sleeping.
  • Inability to regulate one's bodily functions such as being able to go to the bathroom.
  • Severe issues with depression, anxiety, and even aggressiveness.
  • In some cases, seizures may develop.

At the time of this writing Alzheimer's disease is considered to be 100% fatal. The most common cause of death from people who have severe Alzheimer's disease is pneumonia, particularly aspiration pneumonia. This develops when a person cannot swallow properly and gets liquid or food into their lungs. There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but some medicines may slow down the progression of the disease in the early stages.

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