Alzheimer's stages: How the disease progresses

Alzheimer's disease can last more than a decade. See what types of behaviors are common in each of the stages as the disease progresses.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Alzheimer's disease tends to develops slowly and gradually worsens over several years. Eventually, Alzheimer's disease affects most areas of your brain. Memory, thinking, judgment, language, problem-solving, personality and movement can all be affected by the disease.

There are five stages associated with Alzheimer's disease: preclinical Alzheimer's disease, mild cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s disease, mild dementia due to Alzheimer's, moderate dementia due to Alzheimer's and severe dementia due to Alzheimer's. Dementia is a term used to describe a group of symptoms that affect intellectual and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily function.

The five Alzheimer's stages can help you understand what might happen, but it's important to know that these stages are only rough generalizations. The disease is a continuous process. Your experience with Alzheimer's, its symptoms and when they appear may vary.

Preclinical Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer's disease begins long before any symptoms become apparent. This stage is called preclinical Alzheimer's disease. You won't notice symptoms during this stage, nor will those around you.

This stage of Alzheimer's can last for years, possibly even decades. Although you won't notice any changes, new imaging technologies can now identify deposits of a protein called amyloid beta that is a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. The ability to identify these early deposits may be especially important in the future as new treatments are developed for Alzheimer's disease.

Additional biomarkers — measures that can indicate an increased risk of disease — have been identified for Alzheimer's disease. These biomarkers can be used to support the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, typically, after symptoms are evident.

There are also genetic tests that can tell you if you have a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease, particularly early-onset Alzheimer's disease. As with newer imaging techniques, biomarkers and genetic tests will become more important as new treatments for Alzheimer's disease are developed.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) due to Alzheimer's disease

People with mild cognitive impairment have mild changes in their memory and thinking ability. These changes aren't significant enough to affect work or relationships yet. People with MCI may have memory lapses when it comes to information that is usually easily remembered, such as conversations, recent events or appointments.

People with MCI may also have trouble judging the amount of time needed for a task, or they may have difficulty correctly judging the number or sequence of steps needed to complete a task. The ability to make sound decisions can become harder for people with MCI.

Not everyone with mild cognitive impairment has Alzheimer's disease. The same procedures used to identify preclinical Alzheimer's disease can help determine whether MCI is due to Alzheimer's disease or something else.

Mild dementia due to Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer's disease is often diagnosed in the mild dementia stage, when it becomes clear to family and doctors that a person is having significant trouble with memory and thinking that impacts daily functioning.

In the mild Alzheimer's stage, people may experience:

  • Memory loss for recent events. Individuals may have an especially hard time remembering newly learned information and ask the same question over and over.
  • Difficulty with problem-solving, complex tasks and sound judgments. Planning a family event or balancing a checkbook may become overwhelming. Many people experience lapses in judgment, such as when making financial decisions.
  • Changes in personality. People may become subdued or withdrawn — especially in socially challenging situations — or show uncharacteristic irritability or anger. Reduced motivation to complete tasks also is common.
  • Difficulty organizing and expressing thoughts. Finding the right words to describe objects or clearly express ideas becomes increasingly challenging.
  • Getting lost or misplacing belongings. Individuals have increasing trouble finding their way around, even in familiar places. It's also common to lose or misplace things, including valuable items.
Nov. 24, 2015 See more In-depth