It isn’t easy to distinguish the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s from the normal forgetfulness we all experience from time to time. You enter a room and can’t recall why you went there. You’re in the middle of a conversation, and you lose your train of thought. You run into a familiar face, but can’t figure out how you know the friendly person who is greeting you by name.
Long before you or anyone around you even suspects Alzheimer’s, these memory lapses are treated as a part of the normal aging process. After all, it’s true that our memories do falter as we age, and these events can occur even in healthy people in their 30s and 40s.
But over time, the forgetfulness becomes part of a disturbing pattern. You may have frequent trouble remembering something that happened earlier in the day. Events that occurred days ago completely escape your memory. Learning and recalling new information becomes increasingly challenging. As the damage to the brain gradually progresses, these difficulties start to become more troublesome and disruptive.
Establishing whether you have Alzheimer’s is a difficult task. There is no single test or biological marker that reveals whether you have the disease. Alzheimer’s Disease also progresses differendy from one patient to the next, with differing degrees of severity. And although Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, there are also several other forms of dementia that Alzheimer’s Disease may resemble.
To make a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s then, doctors must instead rely heavily on what the patient tells him and what family members and close friends reveal. Other tools include a neurological exam, cognitive screening exams, blood tests and brain scans. But it’s those reports from the patient and family that a doctor typically hears first, which is why becoming familiar with the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease is so critical to establishing whether you have Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s varies a great deal from one person to the next. No two people will have the same experience with the disease, and no two people will experience the exact same symptoms. In some people, the disease may progress rapidly with extreme severity. In others, it may progress slowly and mildly.
The stages of Alzheimer’s Disease correspond to the underlying nerve cell damage that is taking place in the brain. The destruction typically begins in the parts of the brain associated with learning and memory, then gradually travels to parts that affect thinking, judgment, and behavior. Eventually, the damage affects cells that control and coordinate movement.
Some scientists have broken down the stages of Alzheimer’s Disease into three broad categories—mild, moderate, and severe. Other organizations, such as the Alzheimer’s Association, breaks down the disease even further, into seven stages. Keep in mind that these stages are loose guidelines, not strict definitions of what you’ll see at each phase of the disease. Some people may display symptoms from a more advanced stage at what seems to be an earlier phase. Others may display symptoms from several disease intervals at once.
The following is what Alzheimer’s looks like at the three different stages. Since this book focuses on early Alzheimer’s, we’ll get into more detail about these early symptoms than we will in the later two stages.