The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease affects specific parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language. Irreversible and incurable, Alzheimer’s progresses through several stages, from mild to severe, and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
Alzheimer’s disease starts with minor cognitive problems. Forgetfulness, confusion and mood swings are common in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. People in the late stages may lose their ability to recognize loved ones, eat, swallow or walk.
What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease?
As the Alzheimer’s Association explains, Alzheimer’s disease is the result of a number of factors rather than a single cause. However, experts agree that Alzheimer’s stems from the abnormal buildup of plaques (beta-amyloid protein fragments) between nerve cells in the brain. Through each Alzheimer’s stage, tangled pieces of these plaques destroy more brain cells, eventually causing fatal damage.
Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease
1. Early Stage Alzheimer’s
The earliest stages of Alzheimer’s may begin 20 years or more before diagnosis. At this point, plaques and tangles begin to form in parts of the brain that impact learning, memory, thinking and planning. Medical tests cannot yet detect Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages.
2. Mild to Moderate Alzheimer’s
As Alzheimer’s progresses to moderate stages, more plaques and tangles develop in areas of the brain important to memory, thinking and planning, and spread to areas that affect speech. These changes cause noticeable memory loss, confusion and communication problems that can impact an individual’s work and personal life. Often, Alzheimer’s is diagnosed in this stage.
Mild to moderate Alzheimer’s stages can last from two to 10 years. During this time period, individuals may struggle to recognize friends and family members. They may also experience personality and behavior changes.
3. Late Stage Alzheimer’s
The most severe stage of Alzheimer’s can last from one to five years. Most of the brain’s outer layer, which scientists have mapped to thinking, memory, movement and other functions, has been permanently damaged.
Widespread cell death causes the brain to shrink. At this point, individuals no longer recognize friends and family. They also lose their ability to communicate and care for themselves.
Research on Alzheimer’s Continues
Current Alzheimer’s treatments can help slow the disease’s progress and improve the quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. The quest for new treatments continues worldwide, with the aim of developing medications that target the brain changes that Alzheimer’s causes. But, more research funding is needed to achieve that goal.
Refer to the Alzheimer’s Association for more information on the Alzheimer’s treatment horizon.
What changes have you witnessed in a loved one going through the stages of Alzheimer’s? What can you tell others to help them cope through these stages? Please share your thoughts below.