Understanding Alzheimer's stages can help you navigate the challenging times ahead

An expert shares the common symptoms and what to expect at each stage of the disease

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Whether you've just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's or your loved one is living with the disease, understanding Alzheimer’s stages can help navigate the challenging times ahead. 

According to Alzheimer's UK, there are projected to be over one million people living with dementia, which is caused by Alzheimer's disease, in the UK by 2025. By 2040, that number is expected to rise to 1.6 million. 

However, there are differences between Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Dementia is considered to be a severe form of Alzheimer's and there are many different stages of the disease before this point, starting with the early signs of Alzheimer's. Here, woman&home speaks to a specialist in dementia care to reveal all you need to know.

What causes Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's involves a gradual loss of brain tissue that leads to symptoms such as memory loss and difficulty doing usual daily tasks and activities. The NHS explains Alzheimer's is thought to be caused by a build-up of protein in the brain, which disrupts the brain cells. The disease also causes a shortage of important chemical transmitters in the brain. It's a progressive disease, which means that, over time, more areas of the brain become damaged, causing new symptoms to develop and existing symptoms to become more severe.

 The stages of Alzheimer’s  

1. Early stage

The early stage of Alzheimer's is typically the longest. It can last for many years and it's during this stage that people may start to confuse words, have trouble identifying common objects, get confused about where they are or what date it is, and get lost easily. 

"People can also get frustrated or angry as they struggle to process information, causing them to act in unexpected ways as it becomes harder to control emotions and impulses," says Fran Vandelli, a dementia specialist and care lead for Bupa Services Richmond Villages.

At this stage, therapy can be helpful for someone with the condition as it can allow them a place to talk about what's happening to them and process these changes. For family or carers, understanding and flexibility is important at all stages. It's also important for carers to safeguard their mental wellbeing as the condition progresses. 

2. Middle stage

In the middle stage, a person may become more reliant on others. They may begin to lose daily functioning skills, like putting on clothes properly or getting to the toilet on time. Issues with sleeping through the night also tend to become a problem at this point, if not before.

"It's important to understand that although they need some help, people at this stage may not always want the help or recognise that they need it. And, this can lead to a refusal to allow carers to help with things like bathing," says Vandelli.

In this situation, Vanelli suggests offering them support and prompts to ensure they still have some of their independence. "It's important to simplify tasks and allow them to use the remaining skills," she says. 

Like all the stages of Alzheimer's, this one will look different for everyone, depending on the symptoms they're experiencing. For some people with Alzheimer's, it can be helpful for their family, friends, or caregivers to draw up a daily plan to suit their needs and interests. Leaving written reminders of mealtimes and bedtime, planning activities they enjoy (such as listening to music or gardening), or laying out clothing for the next day can be helpful too. 

3. Late stage

The later stages of Alzheimer's can be really difficult for both the person with the disease and those around them. At this stage, they will experience more physical changes, and eventually, this could lead to difficulty swallowing food, so they may need thickened drinks and a modified diet, Vandelli explains. They can also become fatigued very easily. 

At this stage, a person with Alzheimer's will be very reliant on others to care for them. They may have severe memory loss, struggle to communicate, or lose some mobility. The Alzheimer's Society explains it's very common for people in this stage to believe they're living in a different time of their life as well, and begin to behave in ways that don't make sense to those around them. 

Here they may also get confused, be unable to recognise people close to them, or experience changes in mood. It can be challenging to watch a loved one in this stage, but knowing what to expect may help with understanding their needs and ensuring they have the support they need. 

"As the condition worsens over time, eventually many people need to be looked after round the clock, which is often only possible in residential care," Vandelli says.

 What are the symptoms of Alzheimer’s? 

No two people with Alzheimer’s will experience the condition in the same way. The symptoms can also appear differently at different Alzheimer's stages. 

Vandelli shares with us some of the most common symptoms to look out for: 

  •  Difficulty remembering dates and times 
  •  Difficulty taking in new information  
  •  Forgetting the names of familiar people or places  
  •  Struggling to speak or find the right words  
  •  Withdraw or lose interest in usual activities 
  •  Difficulty planning or making decisions 
  •  Becoming easily confused, anxious or agitated  
  •  Misplacing items  
  •  Changes in mood  
  •  Difficulty judging distances or navigating stairs  

 Is there a treatment for Alzheimer’s? 

There is no cure for Alzheimer's. However, some treatments may improve brain function and ease symptoms. "A doctor will prescribe medication, for example, donepezil or galantamine. The medications are only effective for a couple of years, so it is best to start taking these medicines as soon as Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, in the early stages," says Vandelli.

“The treatment aim is to mitigate the impact of the disease so that symptoms are eased, helping people living with Alzheimer’s disease to manage their daily lives for longer. Some people may even have an improvement in their memory function."

There are other ways those living with Alzheimer's can ease the impact of the disease. Staying active, doing tasks independently that can be done safely, eating well, and focusing on building good sleeping habits can help a person look after themselves for longer. 

"Keeping mentally stimulated and interacting with others can help to maintain memory and social skills," adds Vandelli. "At earlier stages, talking therapies enable people with dementia to share their feelings, come to terms with their diagnosis, and can help with anxiety and depression. Eating a healthy, balanced diet and keeping hydrated will help, too.”

Living with Alzheimer's or looking after someone with the disease can be challenging. But, you're not alone - there are lots of charities and resources out there, supporting those affected by the disease and their loved ones. 

For more information, visit Alzheimer's Research UK

Ciara McGinley

Ciara McGinley is a meditation practitioner and health journalist. She qualified as a meditation teacher with the British School of Meditation in 2020 and is the founder of Finding Quiet, a series of classes, workshops and retreats that combine meditation practices and mindfulness techniques to make mindful living realistic in an always-switched-on modern world. She is all about bettering that mind-body connection but believes wellness looks different to everyone.

Ciara is also the former Health Channel Editor at woman&home and has covered all things health and wellbeing for years, from fitness to sleep to relationships.