Alzheimer's disease - Symptoms 

Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease 

The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease progress slowly over several years. They are often similar to those of other conditions and may initially be put down to old age.

The rate at which the symptoms progress differs for each individual and it is not possible to predict exactly how quickly it will get worse.

In some cases, infections or medications can be responsible for the worsening of symptoms. Anyone with Alzheimer's disease whose symptoms are rapidly getting worse should be seen by a doctor so these causes can be ruled out.

Stages of Alzheimer's disease

Generally, the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease are divided into three main stages.

Early symptoms

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
  • forget the names of places and objects
  • repeat themselves regularly, such as asking the same question several times
  • show poor judgement or find it harder to make decisions
  • become unwilling to try out new things or adapt to change

There may also be some early signs of mood changes, such as increasing anxiety or agitation, or periods of confusion.

Middle stage symptoms

As Alzheimer's disease develops, memory problems will get worse and 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, not knowing where they are and walking off and getting lost
  • obsessive, repetitive or impulsive behaviour
  • delusions (believing things that are untrue)
  • 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
  • problems with eyesight, such as poor vision or hallucinations (seeing things that are not there)

By this stage, someone with Alzheimer's disease will usually need support to help them with their everyday living. For example, they may need help eating, washing, getting dressed and using the toilet.

Later symptoms

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 will often become worse and the person with the condition may start to become violent, demanding and suspicious of those around them.

A number of other symptoms may also develop as Alzheimer's disease progresses, such as:

  • difficulty eating and swallowing (dysphagia)
  • difficulty changing position or moving around without assistance
  • considerable weight loss (although some people eat too much and put on weight)
  • unintentional passing of urine (urinary incontinence) or stools (bowel incontinence)
  • gradual loss of speech
  • significant problems with short- and long-term memory

During the severe stage of Alzheimer's disease, people often start to neglect their personal hygiene. It is at this stage that most people with the condition will need to have full-time care because they will be able to do very little on their own.

Read more about how Alzheimer's disease is treated.

Seeking medical advice

If you are 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 will be able to carry out some simple checks to try to find out what the cause may be, and they can refer you to a specialist for further tests if necessary.

Read more about diagnosing Alzheimer's disease.

Page last reviewed: 26/03/2014

Next review due: 26/03/2016

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Worried someone has dementia?

If someone you know is becoming increasingly forgetful, encourage them to see their GP