Alzheimer's Disease & Cognitive Disorders Articles & Resources

Karina Thadani
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease is a cognitive disorder that impacts memory and mental function. It's also the most common cause of dementia, which is a general term for diminished mental capacity that impacts daily life and is often associated with advanced age. (1) In addition to affecting cognitive abilities, Alzheimer's can impair physical functions, including walking and eating. It may also make patients more vulnerable to health conditions, such as fever, pneumonia, and the flu. Currently, there is no cure for the disease. (2)
In the United States alone, over 6 million adults have Alzheimer's disease. (3) For the majority of patients, symptoms begin after the mid-60s. Approximately 5% to 6% of people experience early-onset Alzheimer's, in which symptoms occur before age 65. (4)

The rate at which Alzheimer's progresses varies from person to person. In general, patients live between 3 and 11 years after diagnosis. However, some patients may live for over 20 additional years. (5) In the early stages, Alzheimer's might be confused with normal memory problems. As the disease progresses, impairment becomes more severe. Many patients may lose critical thinking, motor, problem-solving, and language skills, as well as memory.

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What Are Cognitive Disorders?

Cognitive disorders refer to any condition that greatly affects someone's mental functionality to the point where one cannot complete day-to-day activities without treatment or help. These include the following types of dementia: (6)

  • Fronto-temporal dementia: Dementia caused by damage to the frontal and temporal brain lobes
  • Dementia with Lewy's body disease: Dementia caused by protein deposits in brain nerve cells
  • Vascular dementia: Dementia caused by damage to blood vessels connected to the brain
  • Mixed dementia: When multiple types of dementia occur together
  • Pseudodementia: Cognitive impairment that's caused by depression and imitates dementia symptoms (7)

While there are many kinds of cognitive disorders, Alzheimer's continues to be the most prevalent, with research stating the disease is responsible for 60% to 80% of dementia cases. (8)

What Causes Alzheimer's?

Many people wonder, what causes Alzheimer’s diseases? Alzheimer's disease has been linked to a buildup of proteins around the brain cells. More specifically, it involves proteins called amyloid and tau. When abnormal levels of these substances accumulate, they clump together and disrupt brain cell function. Over time, this makes certain brain regions shrink, including the region related to memory. (9) It also leads to a decrease in neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers responsible for everything from sleep cycles to mood. (10)
The cause behind this protein buildup is not entirely clear. However, someone may have an increased risk of Alzheimer's if they meet the following conditions: (11)

  • Old age: Alzheimer's risk doubles every 5 years once someone turns 65.
  • Genetics: Having more than one family member with Alzheimer's increases the risk of getting the disease.
  • Head injury: Alzheimer's has been connected to head and brain trauma.

While risk factors can increase the chances of getting Alzheimer's, there's no way to definitively determine if someone has the disease early on. There must be symptoms to achieve a diagnosis.

What Are The Symptoms of Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's symptoms vary depending on the stage of the illness. In general, diagnosed individuals experience some or all of the following:

  • Increased memory loss
  • Wandering and confusion
  • Personality and mood changes
  • Social withdrawal
  • Communication problems
  • Physical health problems

As the disease progresses, so do symptoms. For example, in the early stages, memory loss might consist of misplacing items or forgetting an appointment. In later stages, it might involve forgetting friends and family members.
Along with cognitive decline, many Alzheimer's patients experience growing health problems. This includes an increased risk of pneumonia, which is a common cause of death among dementia patients. (12)

What Are the Stages of Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's disease can be divided into three main stages. The stages of Alzheimer’s disease are:

  • Early stage
  • Middle stage
  • Late stage

Early stage Alzheimer's is associated with mild, memory-related symptoms, such as forgetting names or struggling with money management. However, the patient can still complete daily activities on their own. This stage usually lasts for about 2 years. (13)
As the patient enters middle-stage (or moderate) Alzheimer's, symptoms become more noticeable. In addition to memory problems, the patient might exhibit mood or behavioral changes. They may also need assistance completing daily activities. This is the longest stage and can last for up to 4 years. (14)

In the final stage of dementia, symptoms are severe. The patient may no longer be able to walk, communicate, or remember loved ones. They'll also need around-the-clock care. Generally, this stage lasts for about a year. (15)

How to Cope With an Alzheimer's or Cognitive Disorder Diagnosis

Being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or dementia can feel overwhelming. Here are a few ways to help cope after a diagnosis: (16)

  • Make environmental changes. For those in the early stages of Alzheimer's, environmental changes can help with minor memory problems. Examples include designating an area for important items (like keys) and writing down appointment information.
  • Engage in hobbies. A diagnosis can make someone feel as though they're losing their identity. Participating in hobbies or enjoyable activities can help diminish these negative feelings and strengthen the person's sense of self.
  • Speak to a doctor. While there's no cure, there is Alzheimer's treatment — namely medication — that may help manage symptoms. It's important to communicate with a doctor to determine which treatments may be helpful. (17)

How to Help Someone With Alzheimer's or a Cognitive Disorder

Coping with dementia or Alzheimer's can be extremely emotional for the entire family. Many patients rely on the help of friends and family to get through it. Here are some ways to help someone with a cognitive disorder:

  • Adjust communication styles
  • Don't get frustrated
  • Provide reassurance and support

One of the biggest symptoms of Alzheimer's is communication problems. Adjusting communication styles, such as by simplifying language, can help loved ones stay connected to an Alzheimer's patient. If you’d like to learn more, visit Communication Tips for Dementia Caregivers. It's also important to stay calm and avoid getting frustrated. Instead, provide support by offering to help the patient and creating an environment in which they feel safe and comfortable. Many caregivers find joining support groups or going to therapy themselves helpful in learning to cope with supporting a loved one with this diagnosis. (18)