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Alzheimer's disease

The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease progress over several years. In the beginning, the symptoms may be put down to old age. They can be like symptoms of other conditions.

The rate at which the symptoms progress is different for each individual.

In some cases, other conditions can be responsible for symptoms getting worse. These conditions include:

  • infections
  • stroke
  • delirium

Other things, such as certain medicines, can also make the symptoms worse.

If you have Alzheimer's disease and your symptoms are getting worse very quickly, talk to your GP.

Stages of Alzheimer's disease

It can be useful to think about the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease in 3 stages.

1. Early symptoms

In the early stages, the main symptom of Alzheimer's disease is memory lapses.

For example, if you have early Alzheimer's disease you may:

  • forget about recent conversations or events
  • misplace items
  • forget the names of places and objects
  • have trouble thinking of the right word
  • repeating questions
  • show poor judgement or find it harder to make decisions
  • become less flexible and more hesitant to try new things

There are often signs of mood changes, such as:

  • increasing anxiety
  • increasing agitation
  • less interest in events and hobbies

2. Middle-stage symptoms

As Alzheimer's disease develops, memory problems will get worse.

You may find it increasingly difficult to remember the names of people you know. You may also struggle to recognise family and friends.

Other symptoms may also develop, such as:

  • increasing confusion and disorientation
  • obsessive, repetitive or impulsive behaviour
  • delusions - believing things that are untrue
  • feeling paranoid and suspicious about carers or family members
  • problems with speech or language (aphasia)
  • disturbed sleep
  • changes in mood - mood swings, depression, feeling increasingly anxious, frustrated or agitated
  • difficulty performing spatial tasks, such as judging distances
  • seeing or hearing things that other people do not (hallucinations)

Some people with Alzheimer's disease also have vascular dementia. Both types of dementia are quite common.

By this stage, you may need support to help you with everyday living. For example, you may need help eating, washing, getting dressed and using the toilet.

3. Later symptoms

In the later stages of Alzheimer's disease, the symptoms become more severe. This can be distressing for you, your carers, friends and family.

Hallucinations and delusions may come and go over the course of the illness. This can get worse as the condition progresses.

You may become aggressive and suspicious of people around you.

You may also develop other symptoms as the disease progresses, such as:

  • difficulty eating and swallowing (dysphagia)
  • difficulty changing position or moving around without help
  • weight loss – sometimes severe
  • unintentional passing of urine (urinary incontinence) or stools (bowel incontinence)
  • gradual loss of speech
  • significant problems with short- and long-term memory

In the severe stages, you may need full-time care with eating, moving and personal care.

When to see your GP

If you're worried about your memory or think you may have dementia, speak to your GP.

You may be worried about someone else's memory problems. If so, encourage them to make an appointment. You might suggest going along with them.

Dementia is not the only cause of memory problems. Depression, stress, medicines or other health problems can also be the cause.

Your GP can carry out some simple checks to try to find out what the cause may be. If it is dementia, there are medications, therapies and support available. These can help you to live your life as you choose for as long as possible. 

Your GP can also refer you to a specialist for more tests if necessary.

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE.

page last reviewed: 21/03/2019
next review due: 21/03/2022

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