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The 7 stages of Alzheimer's disease

by Shannon Lee

A diagnosis of Alzheimer's is a blow to any family. Understanding the stages of the disease can help you in talking to your loved one about what to expect, and can help you deal with what comes next.

First described over a century ago by Dr. Alois Alzheimer, Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, fatal brain disorder. It usually begins with signs of memory problems, difficulty in concentrating, and trouble thinking. The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer's affects over 5 million Americans--according to the Alzheimer's Association--and currently has no cure.

The Seven Stages of Alzheimer's

The progress of Alzheimer's has been documented in countless patients, and experts have found that most go through seven stages of disease progression. As with any medical issue, the duration and symptoms might vary, but the general decline of Alzheimer's remains the same.

  1. No Impairment. Individuals at this stage show no marked decline in their cognitive function. No memory problems show up on a regular basis. In fact, your loved one might seem absolutely fine.
  2. Very Mild Impairment. At this stage, forgetfulness begins. Lapses in memory and basic thoughts might occur, such as forgetting names or familiar words. Forgetting small details, like where they put their glasses or if they took their medication that morning, might be more common.
  3. Mild Decline. At this point, family and friends have begun to notice the symptoms. A person who was once able to organize and plan now seems lost with the details. Losing things is more common, and they might begin having performance issues at work.
  4. Moderate Decline. The problems are now clear in medical interviews. Forgetting personal history, recent events, and how to handle complex tasks, such as planning dinner or paying bills, happen much more frequently. Your loved one might be very aware something is wrong, and that leads to acting withdrawn or subdued in social situations.
  5. Moderately Severe Decline. Major details, such as their phone number or address, become hard to remember. While they may remember their own name and the names of those important to them, such as a spouse or a child, this stage of Alzheimer's begins to chip away at basic information, such as the current date, time, or season. Day-to-day tasks, such as cooking, might not be safe any longer.
  6. Severe Decline. At this point, your loved one might be losing their short-term memory. They may need more help with basic activities, such as dressing and using the toilet. They might also experience behavioral changes, such as feeling suspicious or experiencing hallucinations. Someone at this stage might engage in repetitive behaviors or wander away, only to become confused and lost.
  7. Very Severe Decline. In this final stage, they may lose the ability to speak coherently. They may need help with general hygiene, and may eventually lose muscle coordination and the ability to control movement. Their muscles typically grow rigid, the reflexes become unpredictable, and eventually even swallowing could become be impaired.

Preparing for Alzheimer's

According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's is currently the seventh leading cause of death. Someone develops Alzheimer's every 70 seconds, and though it more often affects the elderly, some individuals develop Alzheimer's in their 50s, 40s, or even their 30s.

If you or a loved one experience the early signs of Alzheimer's, visit a physician as soon as possible. Early detection opens the door to support, medical information, and planning for the future.