What Does Alzheimer's Do to the Brain?

Jennifer Wegerer
By Jennifer WegererOctober 18, 2017

The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease affects specific parts of the brain that control language, memory and thought. Incurable and irreversible, 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. Confusion, forgetfulness and mood swings are common in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. People in the late stages may lose their ability to eat, recognize loved ones, swallow or walk.

How Alzheimer’s Impacts the Brain

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

These stages include:

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, planning and thinking. 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, planning and thinking, and spread to areas that affect speech. These changes cause noticeable confusion and communication problems that can impact an individual’s personal or work 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 family members and friends. They may also experience behavior and personality 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 memory, movement, thinking and other functions, has been permanently damaged.

Widespread cell death causes the brain to shrink. At this point, individuals no longer recognize family and friends. They also lose their ability to care for themselves and communicate.

Research on Alzheimer’s Continues

Alzheimer’s treatment can help improve the quality of life for people with the disease and slow it’s progress – but the quest for new treatments continues worldwide.

The aim is to develop medications that target the brain changes that Alzheimer’s causes, but more research funding is needed to achieve that goal.

You can review the Alzheimer’s Association’s Treatment Horizon webpage for more information about treatment of the disease.

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? We’d like to hear your stories and suggestions in the comments below.

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Jennifer Wegerer

Jennifer Wegerer

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