Early Stage Symptom: Language Problems

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2019 | Last updated: February 2023

In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, your symptoms might seem like those of normal aging, especially at first. As the symptoms become more and more consistent, family members or co-workers might start to notice something isn’t quite right, and perhaps even mention it to you. You might start to get frustrated at the extent of your symptoms and decide to see a doctor because of their impact on your everyday life. One of these symptoms is word-finding difficulties or other language problems.

It can be hard in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s to differentiate between regular symptoms of aging and those of Alzheimer’s disease. If you’re having symptoms that seem significant or impact your daily life, see your doctor as soon as you can. Early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease means early treatment for the symptoms, which can help improve quality of life.

Language difficulties with Alzheimer's disease

If you have Alzheimer’s disease, as the disease progresses, many individuals find that they start to have language difficulties in the middle or moderate stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Symptoms can include trouble finding the right word, losing your train of thought when talking, or difficulty understanding the meaning of a word.1 If you’re bilingual and English was the second language you learned, you might often revert back to your native language.1

Alzheimer’s affects language because as the disease progresses, it affects what is called semantic processing and pragmatic processing.2 Semantic processing involves the content of language, and affects word finding, naming, and word comprehension.2 Pragmatic processing is more involved and deals with adapting language to the appropriate social situation – like making sure you don’t talk too loud, or staying on-topic in a discussion.2 Alzheimer’s disease affects both of these areas, resulting in significant deficits.

Getting an accurate diagnosis

If you’re experiencing word-finding issues or language problems, see your doctor as soon as you can. Tell them honestly about your symptoms, as well as any other symptoms you might be having, even if you don’t think they’re relevant. It’s important to get a thorough medical exam to rule out any conditions that might be impacting your ability to process language, like adverse reactions to medication or stroke. Getting an accurate diagnosis is important so that you can get the appropriate treatment.

Managing language difficulties

While there is no treatment that will cure Alzheimer’s disease or even slow down the progression of the disease, there are a variety of treatments that can help alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life. Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (the brand name drugs Aricept, Exelon, and Razadyne) have been used to treat cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.3 These drugs don’t stop brain cells from being damaged, but they can help to keep symptoms stable for a bit, and work on improving communication between nerve cells in the brain. These drugs have also been explored regarding their benefits on language, although more research is needed.2 Talk to your doctor about whether these drugs are appropriate for you, and whether it might be worth trying them to see if they improve your language difficulties.

As the disease progresses and these language difficulties become more severe, different ways of communicating might be needed, like pictures or pointing, and caregivers may need to rethink their communication styles. Talk with your family and caregivers about how you’d like to approach this when the time comes, and ask your doctor for various tips on how to make appropriate adaptations. Tell us about your experience in the comments below, or share your story with the community.

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