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

illustration of yellow brain on pink background
(Image credit: Future/Getty Images)

There are over six million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, and that number is projected to  grow to 12.7 million by 2050. 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. 

The Alzheimer’s Association reports millions of Americans aged 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s. The disease is the most common type of dementia and involves a gradual loss of brain tissue. 

However, Alzheimer's is not just about memory loss, and there are many other symptoms of the disease. That's why it's important to spot the early signs of Alzheimer's, know the difference between Alzheimer's and dementia, and understand how it will affect a person who has been diagnosed with the disease. 

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, causing disruption to 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.

 What are the symptoms of Alzheimer’s? 

No two people with Alzheimer’s will experience the condition in the same way. Fran Vandelli, Dementia Lead at Bupa Care Services, shares with us some of the most common symptoms of Alzheimer's:

  •  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  

two people holding hands

(Image credit: Getty Images)

 The stages of Alzheimer’s  

The speed with which Alzheimer's progress varies considerably. According to the Alzheimer's Association, on average people aged 65+ survive for four to eight years after their diagnosis. However, some can live up to 20 years with the disease. 

While there is some interesting research into a cure for Alzheimer's, there is currently no treatment for the disease. It's a progressive and long-term condition, and while some people progress very slowly it's helpful to think of the progression the three stages, Vandelli tells us. 

1. Early-stage

The early stage of Alzhimer's is typically the longest stage that can last for many years. During the early stage people may 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," Vandelli tells us. 

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 carers safeguard their own mental wellbeing as the person's condition progresses. See our guide for more information on dementia carers' support.

2. Middle stage

In the middle stage, a person may start to become more reliant on others. They tend to lose daily skills, like putting on clothing properly or getting to the toilet on time. And, they might have trouble sleeping. 

"It's important to understand that although they need some help, people at this stage may not always want the help or recognize 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 as a way to ensure they still have some of their independence. "It's important to simplify tasks and allow them to use their skills that remain," Vandelli adds. 

This will look different for everyone, depending on the symptoms they're experiencing. But for some people with Alzheimer's, it can be helpful for their family, friends, or caregiver 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 therefore need thickened drinks and a modified diet, Vandelli explains. They can also become frail and fatigued. 

At this stage, a person 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, behaving in ways that don't make sense to those around them. 

Here they may also get confused, be unable to recognize 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.

See the list of resources below, for more information and support on how to prepare for this time.   

 Is there a treatment for Alzheimer’s? 

There is no cure for Alzheimer's, however, there are treatments that may be used to 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 aim of this treatment 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.”

Alzheimer's support and resources 

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 the below websites: 

woman&home thanks Fran Vandelli, Dementia Lead at Bupa Care Services for her time and expertise. 

Ciara McGinley

Ciara is the former digital health editor at womanandhome.com and has covered all things health and wellbeing from fitness to sleep to relationships. She's always on the lookout for new health trends, innovative fitness gadgets and must-read wellness books. 

Originally from Ireland, Ciara moved to London to study journalism. After graduation, Ciara started her career at Goodhousekeeping.com. Ciara qualified as a meditation teacher with the British School of Meditation in 2020, and outside of her day-to-day now runs her own meditation school called Finding Quiet. She is all about bettering that mind-body connection but believes wellness looks different to everyone.