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What is Alzheimer's Disease? Understanding Its Impact on Seniors

Written by Amanda Lundberg
 about the author
10 minute readLast updated July 12, 2023

Navigating the journey of Alzheimer’s with a loved one can feel like traversing uncharted territory. It’s a complex condition that gradually weaves its way into the tapestry of a person’s life, altering their memories and shifting their sense of self. While it can be overwhelming, remember that you are not alone in this journey. With understanding and knowledge comes empowerment, and this guide aims to provide you with the crucial insights needed to support your loved one. Together, we’ll explore what Alzheimer’s disease is, its causes, symptoms, stages, and treatments, and when memory care might be necessary. Rest assured, every step you take is a stride toward providing the best care for your loved one.

Key Takeaways

  1. Alzheimer's is a progressive neurological disorder, primarily affecting seniors, that causes memory loss, impairs cognitive functions, and can disrupt daily life. While there is no known cure, recognizing the symptoms and early warning signs can lead to timely interventions.
  2. Numerous factors can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's, including age, genetics, certain health conditions, lifestyle choices, severe head trauma, and lower levels of formal education. Having these risk factors doesn't guarantee the onset of Alzheimer's, nor does their absence ensure immunity.
  3. Alzheimer's typically progresses through several stages, from preclinical to severe, each with its own set of symptoms and challenges. Understanding these stages can help caregivers anticipate changes and provide appropriate care and support.
  4. When the care needs of a loved one become too demanding for home-based care, facility-based memory care can provide a safe, structured environment specially designed for individuals with Alzheimer's. With professional guidance, families can navigate the process of finding the right memory care facility, ensuring the best possible quality of life for their loved one.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease, sometimes referred to as Alzheimer’s dementia, is a progressive neurological disorder that erodes memory, thinking capabilities, and the aptitude to perform basic tasks. This condition is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who first documented it over a century ago. At its core, Alzheimer’s disease isn’t a standard aspect of aging. Instead, it’s a condition where brain cells degenerate and die, leading to a persistent drop in memory and cognitive function.[01]
Alzheimer’s is associated with the buildup of proteins in the brain, resulting in plaques and tangles. These plaques and tangles are unique to Alzheimer’s and they disrupt the connections between nerve cells, interfering with the brain’s ability to process information.[02] As the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s accounts for an estimated 60% to 70% of cases.[03]
It’s worth noting that while Alzheimer’s disease has no cure, there are treatment options to help manage the symptoms, especially in the early stages, that can help your loved one live a more fulfilling life. Be on the lookout for signs of Alzheimer’s, as early detection, coupled with the right treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, can make a significant difference.

Factors contributing to Alzheimer's disease and increased risk in seniors

There’s no single identified cause of Alzheimer’s disease, but several factors are known to increase the risk in seniors, including:[04]
  1. Age. The majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older. In fact, more than 10% of the U.S. population over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s.[05] However, Alzheimer’s is not just a disease of old age. Early-onset Alzheimer’s can affect people in their 40s or 50s.
  2. Genetics. Genetics also play a role in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Those with a direct family history of Alzheimer’s, particularly a parent or sibling, may have a higher risk. Certain genes have been linked to the disease, and having these doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get Alzheimer’s, but it does increase the likelihood.
  3. Lifestyle factors. Overall health can influence a person’s risk as well.[06] Conditions that damage the heart or blood vessels, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high cholesterol, can all increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, habits such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity, exposure to harmful air quality, and a poor diet can contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s.
  4. Previous severe head injuries. Severe head trauma, especially injuries involving loss of consciousness or amnesia, has been linked to a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. The damage caused to the brain during such incidents may initiate a series of neurological changes that lead to the development of Alzheimer’s-related brain changes and symptoms over time.
  5. Lower levels of formal education. Research indicates that lower levels of formal education are associated with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s.[06,07] This could be due to the “cognitive reserve” theory, which suggests that activities stimulating the mind, like education, build connections between brain cells, thus delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms and reducing the impact of brain changes associated with the disease.
It’s important to remember that while these factors can increase the risk, they don’t guarantee that someone will develop Alzheimer’s. Also, having no risk factors doesn’t ensure your loved one won’t get the disease. This complex condition is still under active research to better understand its causes and find effective treatments.

What are the symptoms of Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer’s disease presents itself through a range of symptoms that typically develop slowly and progress over time.[08] Each individual may experience these symptoms differently, and the progression from mild to severe can vary widely. Here are some of the key symptoms to look out for:
  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life. This may include forgetting recently learned information, important dates or events, and asking for the same information over and over.
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems. Some people may experience changes in their ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers.
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks. This could include trouble driving to a familiar location or remembering the rules of a favorite game.
  • Confusion with time or place. People with Alzheimer’s can lose track of dates, seasons, and the passage of time.
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships. For some, vision problems are a significant symptom of Alzheimer’s. They may also have problems judging distance and determining color or contrast, which can cause issues with driving.
  • New problems with words in speaking or writing. They may struggle with vocabulary, have problems finding the right word, or call things by the wrong name.
  • Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps. This is not just about forgetting where they placed their keys but could also involve placing things in unusual locations.

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What are the early warning signs?

Recognizing the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s can be critical for timely intervention. If your loved one is displaying the following behaviors, it might be wise to consult a health care professional:
  • Difficulty remembering recent events while older memories remain intact
  • Repetition, such as asking the same question in a short time frame
  • Difficulty finding the right words in conversations or while writing
  • Increasing confusion about time, dates, and places
  • Increasing difficulty in making decisions, judging distances, and understanding visual images
  • Changes in mood or personality, including becoming confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful, or anxious
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities that were once enjoyed [09]
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, and the symptoms will become more severe over time. However, early detection can provide more opportunities for treatment and support, making it essential to be aware of these symptoms and signs.

Stages of Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer’s disease typically progresses through several stages, each characterized by different sets of symptoms and functional abilities. Although the timeline can vary greatly for each individual, here’s a general overview of the stages of Alzheimer’s:
  1. Preclinical Alzheimer’s disease: This is the stage before any noticeable symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear, and it can last for years or even decades. During this phase, changes like the formation of plaques and tangles are happening in the brain, but daily functions are not yet affected.
  2. Mild (early-stage) Alzheimer’s disease: During this stage, a person may start to exhibit signs of Alzheimer’s, such as memory lapses, difficulty finding the right words, or trouble with problem-solving and planning. These symptoms might be mild, but they could be noticeable enough to prompt a visit to the doctor. This stage can last from two to four years.
  3. Moderate (middle-stage) Alzheimer’s disease: This stage is typically the longest and can last for many years. Symptoms become more evident and start to interfere with daily tasks. You might notice the person having difficulty remembering their own personal history, feeling moody or withdrawn — especially in socially challenging situations — or being unable to recall their own address or telephone number.
  4. Severe (late-stage) Alzheimer’s disease: In this final stage, individuals lose the ability to respond to their environment, carry on a conversation, and, eventually, control movement. They may still say words or phrases but communicating pain becomes difficult. As memory and cognitive skills continue to worsen, significant personality changes may take place and individuals will need help with daily activities.
Everyone experiences Alzheimer’s differently, and progression through these stages may not be linear. Understanding the stages of Alzheimer’s can help caregivers and families better anticipate the changes that their loved one may experience and plan for the necessary care and support. While this journey may be challenging, it’s possible to provide a meaningful quality of life at each stage with appropriate care and resources.

Treatment options for Alzheimer’s disease

After an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, it’s natural to start exploring available treatment options for your loved one. While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, several treatments can help manage the symptoms and potentially slow the progression of the disease. The following treatments aim to maximize quality of life, preserve independence for as long as possible, and manage behavioral symptoms.
  1. Medications for cognitive symptoms. Certain drugs can help manage memory loss, confusion, and other cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s. The most commonly used are cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine. They work by regulating neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers, helping to maintain communication among nerve cells.
  2. Behavior management techniques. Symptoms like sleeplessness, agitation, wandering, anxiety, and depression are often managed through a combination of medications, environmental modifications, and behavioral strategies like validation and redirection. In some cases, certain antipsychotic medications might be prescribed.
  3. Supportive services and therapies. Occupational therapy can help the individual cope with changes in their abilities, while physical therapy can help them maintain mobility. Additionally, speech therapy might be useful for those struggling with language and communication issues.
  4. Lifestyle changes and home remedies. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help your loved one feel better overall and may reduce some Alzheimer’s symptoms. Regular physical exercise, a nutritious diet, adequate sleep, and socially engaging activities can be beneficial.
  5. Clinical trials and studies. Participating in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease can give access to experimental treatments that aren’t available otherwise.[10]
It’s important to understand that each person with Alzheimer’s disease may respond differently to treatment, and what works best may depend on the individual’s symptoms, stage of the disease, overall health, and personal preferences. It’s always recommended to involve health care professionals when considering Alzheimer’s disease treatment options to ensure the best possible care and quality of life for your loved one.

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When is it time for memory care?

Determining the right time for a senior with Alzheimer’s to move to facility-based memory care can be a challenging decision. Generally, when the care needs of a loved one become too complex or demanding to handle at home, or when their safety and health are at risk, it may be time to consider memory care. Other indicators might include escalating health care needs, increased wandering tendencies, or if the caregiver’s health and well-being start to deteriorate, too.
Facility-based memory care offers numerous benefits. These facilities are designed to provide a safe and comfortable environment, specifically catering to the needs of individuals with memory impairments. They typically offer structured activities to engage residents and help them maintain their cognitive and physical abilities as much as possible. Additionally, they provide professional 24/7 care, which can include assistance with daily tasks, medication management, and health services.
Finding the right memory care for your loved one can feel overwhelming. Senior Care Advisors can play a pivotal role in helping families navigate this process. They can provide guidance, share valuable insights and resources, and offer personalized recommendations based on your loved one’s needs, preferences, and financial considerations. The goal is to support you and your family throughout this journey, ensuring your loved one receives the care they deserve in an environment that promotes dignity, respect, and quality of life.


  1. Alzheimer’s Association. (2023) What is Alzheimer’s disease?

  2. National Institute on Aging. National Institutes of Health. (2021, July 8). What is Alzheimer’s disease?

  3. World Health Organization. (2023, March 15). Dementia.

  4. Alzheimer’s Association. (2023). Causes and risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.

  5. Alzheimer’s Association. (2023). Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures.

  6. Livingston, G., Huntley, J., Sommerlad, A., Ames, D., Ballard, C., Banerjee, S., Brayne, C., Burns, A., Cohen-Mansfield, J., Cooper, C., Costafreda, S. G., Dias, A., Fox, N., Gitlin, L. N., Howard, R., Kales, H. C., Kivimäki, M., Larson, E. B., Ogunniyi, A., Orgeta, V., … Mukadam, N. (2020, August 8). Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet CommissionThe Lancet.

  7. Sharp, E. S., & Gatz, M. (2011, October). Relationship between education and dementia: an updated systematic review.Alzheimer Disease and Associated Disorders.

  8. National Institute on Aging. National Institutes of Health. (2022, October 18). What are the signs of Alzheimer’s disease?

  9. Alzheimer’s Association. (2023). 10 early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

  10. National Institute on Aging. National Institutes of Health. (2023, April 1). How is Alzheimer’s disease treated?

Meet the Author
Amanda Lundberg

Amanda Lundberg, RN, has over 10 years’ experience in clinical settings, working extensively with seniors and focusing on wellness and preventative care.

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