Alzheimer's Foundation of America

Foundation of America

The Course of Alzheimer’s Disease: Common Features with Individual Variations

by Dr. Allison B. Reiss

If you or a member of your family have been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, you may wonder what you can expect next.

Memory loss and trouble with language and communication—such as difficulty finding words, concentrating, or following a conversation—are common early signs. As the disease progresses, confusion, reading and writing problems, and difficulties managing finances are expected, followed by loss of basic motor skills and self-care abilities in the later stages, unfortunately.

While these features are nearly universal for everyone living with Alzheimer’s, at some point, many aspects of the disease are quite unique and vary from person to person. Some individuals move through the various stages of Alzheimer’s in just a few short years, while others have a prolonged period that stretches over two decades.

Emotional and behavioral symptoms differ among individuals as well. One person may become depressed but not agitated, aggressive, or violent, while a second experiences the opposite, and a third encounters none of those symptoms.

Wandering may be an ongoing issue for some, but not others. Different variants of Alzheimer’s, while still sharing the same long-term prognosis as the classical form of the disease, in general, also cause different effects.

The language variant may produce less memory impairment early on, but more prominent difficulty with language trouble finding words, slowed speech and mispronouncing words.

The visual variant may preserve memory and cognitive ability, but create greater vision effects early on, such as poor depth perception; difficulty reading, driving, and recognizing faces; and problems finding objects that are right in front of them.

The rare frontal variant may leave memory intact early in the course, but cause behavioral symptoms such as apathy, loss of inhibitions, and socially inappropriate conduct.

One of the most important things of which a caregiver should always be mindful is that their person is unique; and to the greatest extent possible, care should be centered upon them and how they are experiencing Alzheimer’s. While we continue to search hard for a cure for Alzheimer’s, remember that treatments, therapeutic interventions, and lifestyle choices may improve symptoms and quality of life. Good nutrition, exercise, proper sleep, social interaction, and cognitive stimulation can all be helpful.

Allison B. Reiss, MD, is an Associate Professor of Medicine at NYU Long Island School of Medicine and a member of AFA’s Medical, Scientific and Memory Screening Advisory Board

This article originally appeared in Alzheimer’s TODAYVolume 16, Number 2, published by AFA. View the entire issue here.