The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease progress slowly over several years. Sometimes these symptoms are confused with other conditions and may initially be put down to old age.
The rate at which the symptoms progress is different for each individual and it's not possible to predict exactly how quickly it will get worse.
In some cases, infections, medications, strokes or delirium can be responsible for symptoms getting worse. Anyone with Alzheimer's disease whose symptoms are rapidly getting worse should be seen by a doctor, so these can be managed.
Stages of Alzheimer's disease
Generally, the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease are divided into three main stages.
In the early stages, the main symptom of Alzheimer's disease is memory lapses. For example, someone with early Alzheimer's disease may:
- forget about recent conversations or events, or misplace items
- forget the names of places and objects, or have trouble thinking of the right word
- repeat themselves regularly, such as asking the same question several times
- show poor judgement or find it harder to make decisions
- become less flexible and more hesitant to try new things
There are often signs of mood changes, such as increasing anxiety or agitation, or periods of confusion.
As Alzheimer's disease develops, memory problems will get worse. Someone with the condition may find it increasingly difficult to remember the names of people they know and may struggle to recognise their family and friends.
Other symptoms may also develop, such as:
- increasing confusion and disorientation – for example, getting lost, or wandering and not knowing what time of day it is
- obsessive, repetitive or impulsive behaviour
- delusions (believing things that are untrue) or feeling paranoid and suspicious about carers or family members
- problems with speech or language (aphasia)
- disturbed sleep
- changes in mood, such as frequent mood swings, depression and feeling increasingly anxious, frustrated or agitated
- difficulty performing spatial tasks, such as judging distances
By this stage, someone with Alzheimer's disease usually needs support to help them with their everyday living. For example, they may need help eating, washing, getting dressed and using the toilet.
In the later stages of Alzheimer's disease, the symptoms become increasingly severe and distressing for the person with the condition, as well as their carers, friends and family.
Hallucinations and delusions may come and go over the course of the illness, but can get worse as the condition progresses. Sometimes people with Alzheimer's disease can be violent, demanding and suspicious of those around them.
A number of other symptoms may also develop as Alzheimer's disease progresses, such as:
In the severe stages of Alzheimer's disease, people may need full-time care and assistance with eating, moving and using the toilet.
Read more about how Alzheimer's disease is treated.
Seeking medical advice
If you're worried about your memory or think you may have dementia, it's a good idea to see your GP. If you're worried about someone else, you should encourage them to make an appointment and perhaps suggest that you go along with them.
Memory problems are not just caused by dementia – they can also be caused by depression, stress, medications or other health problems. Your GP can carry out some simple checks to try to find out what the cause may be, and they can refer you to a specialist for more tests, if necessary.
Read more about diagnosing Alzheimer's disease.