Symptoms of Alzheimer’s

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2023

Alzheimer’s disease destroys cells in the brain, called neurons, and their connections. It mostly targets the memory areas of the brain. This is what causes the earliest symptoms, like memory problems or confusion. As Alzheimer’s progresses, though, symptoms will change and vary.1-4

Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disease. This means symptoms get worse over time. Symptoms start out milder before becoming more disruptive. Once symptoms do become apparent, it is important to talk to your doctor. They can help you get an accurate diagnosis and plan for care.1-4

There are 2 main categories that Alzheimer’s symptoms affect. These are thinking (cognition) and physical health. As the disease progresses, both areas decline overall. Knowing the symptoms can help you stay aware of your disease progression. It will also help you discuss care with your doctor.1-4

Mental and emotional symptoms

Mental and emotional symptoms of Alzheimer’s usually involve memory and personality. Memory loss in Alzheimer’s mostly affects new memories, at least at first. Someone with Alzheimer’s may have issues remembering the names of new people. Or they may quickly forget something that they just learned.1-4

In later stages, the person with Alzheimer’s may forget personal events or information. This can include things like their telephone number and address. They may also become more confused. For example, they might not know what day it is or where they are. This is why unfamiliar objects, people, and places are all likely to cause problems.1-4

A person with Alzheimer's may have difficulty with their usual daily tasks. For example, they may:2-4

  • Lose or misplace valuable objects
  • Have difficulty completing hygiene tasks – like bathing – by themselves
  • Start to wander or get lost

Alzheimer’s also affects decision-making. The person with Alzheimer's may start to show poor judgment. For example, they might make risky financial decisions. Or they might have poor recognition of dangerous situations.1-4

Someone with Alzheimer’s will also likely begin to show changes in behavior. Hallucinations are also common, especially in later stages. The person might:1-3

  • Have delusions
  • Be suspicious of everyday objects and events
  • Engage in compulsive, repetitive behaviors like paper-tearing
  • Become aggressive

Once someone enters late-stage Alzheimer’s, they begin to lose awareness of their experiences and surroundings. They have difficulty communicating. They may speak in incomplete sentences or in ways that do not make sense. But some people continue to communicate. They may say words or phrases or grunt or moan to communicate.1-3

Physical symptoms of Alzheimer’s

Physical symptoms of Alzheimer’s affect whether a person can live on their own. In later stages, people with Alzheimer’s may have difficulty controlling their bladder and bowels. Setting a toileting schedule and limiting (but not banning) liquids before bed can help with this.1-4

Sleep is one of the things most affected by Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s causes changes in sleep pattern. This is called sleep disruption and it can worsen symptoms. Many people with Alzheimer’s show “sundowning” during late afternoon and early evening. This can make evenings a particularly challenging time. Sundowning may include:1-3

  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Wandering

The extent of physical changes is different for each person. But late-stage difficulties with walking, sitting, and – eventually – swallowing are all common. Many people develop dental, skin, and foot problems.1,2

Pneumonia and other infections also cause problems in later stages. A common cause of death for people with late-stage Alzheimer’s is aspiration pneumonia. This type of pneumonia happens when a person cannot swallow properly. Instead of taking air into their lungs, they breathe in food or liquids.1,2

Knowing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s is key to diagnosis and treatment. Talk to your doctor if you notice new or worsening Alzheimer’s symptoms in yourself or a loved one.

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