Health Q&A

Caregiver’s Guide: Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease

March 4, 2019

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s Disease is the generalised deterioration of brain function, which causes the patient to have problems with their memory, thinking and behaviour. According to a 2011 census, Alzheimer’s South Africa indicated that approximately 2.2 million South Africans were affected by this particular form of dementia.

10 early signs of Alzheimer’s Disease

There are a number of early warning signs to watch out for, as people suffering from Alzheimer’s experience difficulty communicating, thinking and reasoning. Some of these signs may include:

  • Reduced ability to plan or problem-solve
  • Difficulty completing complex tasks
  • Generalised confusion about dates or time
  • Difficulty comprehending visual images
  • Specific memory loss, like forgetting someone’s name
  • Problems with speaking or writing
  • Misplacing items or replacing items in unusual places
  • Poor judgement or reasoning
  • Being withdrawn and avoiding social interaction

The 7 stages of Alzheimer’s Disease

Medical professionals agree that Alzheimer’s Disease occurs in stages, which include mild (early stage), moderate (mid stage) and severe (late stage). The course, nature and severity of the disease vary from person to person. The Global Deterioration Scale identifies seven stages, which are defined by certain symptoms. These may include:

Stage 1: no noticeable symptoms of impairment are present.

Stage 2: known as mild cognitive decline and includes memory loss, decreased concentration and forgetfulness.

Stage 3: also known as mild cognitive decline and includes increased forgetfulness, declining work performance, difficulties making plans, repeating oneself, inability to remember new information and organisational problems.

Stage 4: known as moderate cognitive decline and includes symptoms like mood swings, inability to plan ahead, depression and difficulties with complex tasks.

Stage 5: also known as moderate cognitive decline and includes symptoms like disorientation and a decline in personal hygiene. The patient could experience difficulties performing daily tasks and may require some assistance.

Stage 6: known as moderately severe cognitive decline, this is when the patient requires assistance with basic tasks, like personal hygiene, dressing or preparing meals. They will have difficulty remembering details about their life, like where they live or the name of their spouse. They are also likely to suffer personality changes and are prone to episodes of extreme paranoia, hallucination or delusions.

Stage 7: known as severe cognitive decline, this is the most serious stage of the disease. The patient will require assistance in all aspects of their daily life, including feeding and toileting. They will be unable to talk or respond rationally and will lose muscle control, including the ability to walk.

Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s Disease

It’s important not to ignore the tell-tale signs of this disease. If you suspect that your friend or relative may be suffering from the disease, encourage them to see a medical professional to get a diagnosis. You can then help them make appropriate lifestyle changes and discuss plans for their future well-being.

Some of these could include:

  • Living arrangements: they may have to consider a home move to a place that offers assisted living or home-based care
  • Exercise plans, as this can help with muscle coordination, so work out some simple routines, like a short daily walk or some light gardening
  • Reduced capacity to carry out complex tasks, like driving or cooking, so alternative arrangements may have to be made to assist them in this regard
  • Legal preparations, like designating a person to make decisions on their behalf
  • Entertainment, like socialising, which can assist in reducing anxiety or depression

The most common questions about Alzheimer’s answered

Not exactly. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. Dementia is impaired intellectual functioning, which can be caused by several types of brain disorders.

  • Is Alzheimer’s an old person’s disease?

Not always. The onset of Alzheimer’s Disease is most prevalent in people in their 60s and 70s, but early onset Alzheimer’s can affect people in their 40s and 50s.

  • Is Alzheimer’s a normal part of growing old?

No. Alzheimer’s interferes with a person’s ability to function. The symptoms and disease progression are far more serious than simply growing old and forgetful.

  • Can Alzheimer’s be prevented?

No. If a person has a deterministic or risk gene, they could develop Alzheimer’s. While leading a healthy lifestyle can support brain function, it cannot prevent the development of the disease.

  • Is Alzheimer’s hereditary?

Yes. Your chances of developing Alzheimer’s increases if you have a first generation relative with the disease. Genetics plays a factor in the onset of the disease, but so do other factors, like having certain conditions, for instance high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia. Patients require specific care and consideration depending on which stage of the disease they are experiencing.


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