Alzheimer's Disease

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Alzheimer's disease varies from person to person so not everyone will have the same symptoms. Also, the disease progresses faster in some people than in others. In general, though, Alzheimer’s takes many years to develop and becomes increasingly severe over time.

Memory Problems -- A Common Early Sign

Memory problems are typically one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. However, not all memory problems are caused by Alzheimer’s. If you or someone in your family thinks your forgetfulness is getting in the way of your normal routine, it’s time to see your doctor. He or she can find out what’s causing these problems.

A person in the early (mild) stage of Alzheimer’s disease may

Other thinking problems besides memory loss may be the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease. A person may have

See a chart that compares symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease with symptoms of normal aging.

Later Signs of Alzheimer’s

As Alzheimer’s disease progresses to the moderate stage, memory loss and confusion grow worse, and people may have problems recognizing family and friends. Other symptoms at this stage may include

Symptoms of Severe Alzheimer’s

As Alzheimer’s disease becomes more severe, people lose the ability to communicate. They may sleep more, lose weight, and have trouble swallowing. Often they are incontinent—they cannot control their bladder and/or bowels. Eventually, they need total care.

Benefits of Early Diagnosis

An early, accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease helps people and their families plan for the future. It gives them time to discuss care options, find support, and make legal and financial arrangements while the person with Alzheimer’s can still take part in making decisions. Also, even though no medicine or other treatment can stop or slow the disease, early diagnosis offers the best chance to treat the symptoms.

How Alzheimer’s Is Diagnosed

The only definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer's disease is to find out whether plaques and tangles exist in brain tissue. To look at brain tissue, doctors perform a brain autopsy, an examination of the brain done after a person dies.

Doctors can only make a diagnosis of "possible" or “probable” Alzheimer’s disease while a person is alive. Doctors with special training can diagnose Alzheimer's disease correctly up to 90 percent of the time. Doctors who can diagnose Alzheimer’s include geriatricians, geriatric psychiatrists, and neurologists. A geriatrician specializes in the treatment of older adults. A geriatric psychiatrist specializes in mental problems in older adults. A neurologist specializes in brain and nervous system disorders.

To diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, doctors may

Test results can help doctors know if there are other possible causes of the person's symptoms. For example, thyroid problems, drug reactions, depression, brain tumors, head injury, and blood-vessel disease in the brain can cause symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer's. Many of these other conditions can be treated successfully.

New Diagnostic Methods Being Studied

Researchers are exploring new ways to help doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s disease earlier and more accurately. Some studies focus on changes in a person’s memory, language, and other mental functions. Others look at changes in blood, spinal fluid, and brain-scan results that may detect Alzheimer’s years before symptoms appear.

Watch a video that explains changes in diagnostic guidelines for Alzheimer’s.