What is the typical progression of Alzheimer's disease?

Zaldy S. Tan, MD
Geriatric Medicine

Alzheimer’s disease progresses slowly. It develops over the course of several years to a decade. The disease affects a person’s abilities in roughly the reverse order that we acquire these abilities during childhood. For example, a newborn can breathe, suck and swallow. As the child grows, he or she begins to walk, speak, eat independently and control bodily functions. Finally, the child acquires the ability to reason and perform mathematical calculations. Alzheimer’s first affects those higher mental functions, such as the ability to reason and manage finances. Abilities such as swallowing seem to be hardwired into our brains, so they are among the last abilities an Alzheimer’s patient loses.

Judith London, MD

Alzheimer's is also a disease of impaired communication. The ability to communicate clearly diminishes as the disease progresses. However, the person with Alzheimer's has emotional memory and unconsciously can express a feeling without knowing why he feels that way. That's why it is important to treat someone with this disease with dignity, and to continue our efforts to make sense of their efforts to express themselves. Keep 'connecting the dots' of whatever they say or do to reach and validate those who are afflicted.

Alzheimer's may begin with mild forgetfulness, but as the disease progresses, the person will exhibit severe memory loss.

A person with Alzheimer's will forget how to do things that have been part of his or her daily routine for decades. He or she will have trouble remembering who people are. Thinking becomes confused and muddled. People with Alzheimer's have trouble judging and assessing situations, following directions or dong such things as manipulating information or numbers in their heads.

They may also experience problems with spatial sense, such as discerning the locations of things and people in relation to themselves.

Initially, they may have trouble remembering a phrase or word, but ultimately basic communication becomes impaired.

In moderate to advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease, a person may have mood swings, get confused, become restless and wander away. Even the person's personality may change and become characterized by depression, aggressive behavior or anxiety.

Near the end of their lives, Alzheimer's patients require constant monitoring and care.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.