Many assume memory loss is a natural part of aging, but losing major function and memory could be a sign of something more.

Alzheimer’s disease often starts slowly. You may have mild memory loss or feel forgetful in a way that can even seem natural as you age.

Over time, though, that memory loss can progress. You might start forgetting significant parts of your day or lose the ability to complete daily tasks.

Forgetting a word on occasion and misplacing your keys can happen as you age, but how do you know if it’s the start of something more serious?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, cognitive decline that can impair daily activity.

Approximately 5.8 million people in the United States live with Alzheimer’s disease. Your chances of developing this condition increase as you age, though young people can also be affected by Alzheimer’s.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is unknown, though contributing factors can include:

  • genetics
  • brain changes or injury
  • diet
  • environment
  • substance use
  • age
  • poor heart health

What happens to the brain during Alzheimer’s?

Though it is unknown why Alzheimer’s symptoms begin, they can be traced to changes in the brain that affect memory, language, and thought control.

In a neurotypical brain, neurons send information between different parts of the brain and throughout your body.

With age, it’s natural for some areas of your brain to shrink, but your number of neurons stays relatively stable.

Alzheimer’s is a condition in which the brain loses mass and neurons.

Alzheimer’s prevents neurons from carrying out important processes through a buildup of nerve-killing structures called plaques and tangles.

Neurons become unable to repair and maintain themselves, and they’re unable to use needed chemicals and nutrients.

Your neurons — and their connections to one another — become permanently damaged by these plaques and tangles, typically starting in the area of the brain linked to memory.

As Alzheimer’s progresses, neurons continue to be lost, and the disease can start to affect other parts of your brain that control language, behavior, and reasoning.

Over time, your functioning may become completely impaired.

Alzheimer’s is a fatal condition and the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

Alzheimer’s disease is progressive and consists of mild, moderate, and severe clinical stages.

Mild stage

Most people tend to be diagnosed during the mild stage, also known as the early stage. Your overall health may appear fine during this time, but memory-loss symptoms might start to concern you or those around you.

Mild Alzheimer’s symptoms may include:

  • forgetting information recently learned
  • increasing need for memory reminders
  • difficulty formulating plans
  • trouble following recipes or long-order record keeping
  • familiar or daily tasks become a challenge
  • trouble with organization
  • losing track of the passage of time
  • balance issues
  • difficulty reading
  • finding it hard to follow conversations
  • misplacing items
  • poor judgment
  • mood or personality changes
  • confusion
  • suspicion
  • withdrawing from social situations
  • wandering or getting lost
  • repeating questions

Moderate stage

When Alzheimer’s symptoms progress to the moderate stage, they often start to require outside intervention.

You may have many physical functions, but the thought processes needed to carry out tasks can make daily activities challenging or nearly impossible.

Moderate Alzheimer’s symptoms may include:

  • increasing memory loss
  • mood swings
  • restlessness
  • anxiety
  • wandering
  • muscle twitches
  • impulsive behavior
  • language difficulties (including reading and writing)
  • short attention span
  • repeating statements and behaviors
  • difficulty learning new things
  • paranoia
  • delusions or hallucinations
  • lack of logical thought processes
  • inability to perform routine tasks

Severe stage

Also known as late-stage Alzheimer’s, the severe stage is where the most impairment develops. During this stage, your ability to communicate is limited, and you may become completely dependent on outside caregiving.

During this stage of Alzheimer’s, the body starts to shut down, and symptoms often include:

  • loss of bladder and bowel control
  • weight loss
  • skin conditions
  • infections
  • seizures
  • difficulty swallowing
  • nonverbal vocalizations
  • increased sleeping

There’s no catch-all test that will tell you if what you’re experiencing is Alzheimer’s disease.

Your symptoms, overall health, and medical history may need to be reviewed by a healthcare team to reach a diagnosis.

Some memory loss is considered natural as you age and may be linked to other conditions, such as mild cognitive impairment.

To determine what might be causing your symptoms and to assess the severity, a healthcare professional will likely conduct a physical examination first to rule out other possible causes.

From there, a neurological exam can help uncover any other neurological-related issues. Your reflexes, coordination, and eye movement may all be a part of this assessment.

For additional insight, the neurological evaluation may include diagnostic imaging of the brain.

In addition to physical and neurological examinations, your cognitive ability may be evaluated through a variety of tests, including:

  • Mini-Mental State Exam: A scored series of questions that assess progression of Alzheimer’s symptoms.
  • Mini-Cog: A two-task evaluation that requires you to remember and repeat three item names and draw a correct picture of a clock with a specified time.
  • Computerized tests: Food and Drug Administration-approved computer-based tests such as:
    • Cognigram
    • Cantab Mobile
    • Cognision
    • Cognivue
    • Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics (ANAM)

Depending on your situation, your healthcare team might also recommend a mood and depression screening.

Living with Alzheimer’s can feel as if you’re losing control or losing a sense of who you are. An estimated 40% of people living with Alzheimer’s symptoms also experience significant depression.

Genetic testing is available to identify possible genetic predispositions if you’re concerned about a family history of Alzheimer’s.

There’s no wrong time to speak with your healthcare professional about Alzheimer’s symptoms.

While there is no cure for the disease, there are treatment options.

According to findings from two longitudinal studies, early intervention of lifestyle choices — such as quitting smoking, exercise, and eating a balanced diet — may help slow Alzheimer’s progression.

If your daily tasks have become challenging, or you experience routine lapses in thoughts or memory, speaking with your healthcare team may help.

If memory decline causes significant impairment, you may benefit from an Alzheimer’s assessment.

Most age-related memory loss is mild and fleeting. One day, you might and forget where you parked, for example. If that happens regularly, though, something more serious may be developing.

Growing older doesn’t mean you’re going to experience memory loss. Only approximately 40% of people develop memory issues as they age.

Of those, an estimated 1% may develop a form of dementia.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing progressive memory decline, help is available. Your local healthcare professional can start the evaluation process and make further recommendations.

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