Alzheimer's Disease: The Basics

Information to consider if you suspect that a loved one may have Alzheimer’s disease.

Possible Signs Of Alzheimer’s Disease

The classic signs of early Alzheimer’s disease include problems with:

  • Short-term memory
    • Does your loved one repeat things that he or she says or does?
    • Does your loved one forget conversations or appointments
    • Does your loved one forget where he or she put things?
  • Handling complex tasks
    • Does your loved one have difficulty performing tasks that require many steps such as balancing a checkbook or cooking a meal?
  • Reasoning ability
    • Does your loved one have difficulties solving everyday problems, such as knowing what to do if the bathroom is flooded?
  • Spatial ability and orientation
    • Does your loved on become disoriented while driving, even in familiar places?
  • Language
    • Does your loved one have difficulty finding the words to express what he or she wants to say?
  • Behavior
    • Does your loved one have trouble paying attention?
    • Is he or she more irritable or less trusting than usual

Consulting The Doctor

Identifying mild cases of Alzheimer’s can be very difficult. Your loved one’s doctor will review his or her health and mental status, both past and present. Changes from your loved one’s previous mental and physical condition are especially important.

Persons with Alzheimer’s disease may not realize the severity of their condition. Your loved one’s doctor will probably want to talk with you, family members, and/or friends concerning your loved one’s behavior. The doctor’s first assessment should include a focused history, physical examination, and functional and mental status assessment.

Medical And Family History

The doctor may ask questions about your loved one’s history, including:

  • How and when did problems begin?
  • Have the symptoms progressed or worsened steadily?
  • Do they vary from day to day?
  • How long have they lasted?

Your loved one’s doctor will also ask about past and current medical problems and whether other family members have had Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. If you know the answers to these types of questions ahead of time, you’ll be able to help the doctor make a more thorough assessment of your loved one’s condition.


A physical examination can determine whether medical problems may be causing symptoms of dementia. Physical examinations are important because prompt treatment may relieve some symptoms. The doctor may ask your loved one questions about his or her ability to live alone. Sometimes, you, a family member, or close friend may be asked how well your loved one can:

  • Write checks, pay bills, or balance a checkbook
  • Shop alone for clothing, food, and household needs
  • Play a game of skill or work on a hobby
  • Heat water, make coffee, and operate a stove
  • Pay attention to, understand, and discuss a TV show, book, or magazine
  • Remember appointments, family occasions, holidays, and medications
  • Travel out of the neighborhood, drive, or use public transportation

If your loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, you and other family members have serious issues to consider. Talk with your loved one’s doctor about what to expect in the near future, and later on as the condition progresses. Getting help early will ensure that your loved one gets the best possible care.

When tests do not indicate Alzheimer’s disease, but your loved one’s symptoms continue or worsen, check back with his or her doctor. More tests may be needed, and new tests may show a change in your loved one’s condition. If you still aren’t satisfied with the doctor’s diagnosis, you may want to consider a second opinion. Be aware, however, that memory or reasoning problems don’t necessarily indicate Alzheimer’s disease. Oftentimes, older adults are misdiagnosed as having Alzheimer’s. Factors attributing to a misdiagnosis include:

  • Education and other cultural factors. Language problems (for example, difficulty speaking English) can create misunderstanding. Be sure to tell the doctor about any language problems that could affect your loved one’s test results.
  • Medication. It is important to tell the doctor about all the drugs your loved one takes and how long he or she has been taking them. Drug reactions can cause dementia.

Getting The Right Care

Learning that your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease can be a difficult issue to handle. It is important to encourage your loved one to share his or her feelings with family and friends. Ask your doctor for advice on how to tell people who need to know that your loved one has Alzheimer’s—other family members, friends, and coworkers, for example.

Many kinds of help are available for persons with Alzheimer’s disease, their families, and caregivers, including:

  • Support groups. Sometimes it helps to talk things over with other people and families who are coping with Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association has active groups across the country. Many hospitals also sponsor education programs and support groups to help patients and families.
  • Financial and medical planning. Time to plan is a major benefit of early Alzheimer’s detection. You and your family will need to decide where your loved one will live and who will provide needed help and care.
  • Legal matters. An attorney can provide legal advice to help you and your loved one plan for the future. A special document, called an advance directive, lets others know what your loved one would like them to do if he or she becomes unable to think clearly or speak for him or herself.

Find this and other caregiving information at
© Copyright FamilyCare America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Adapted from Early Identification of Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias, AHCPR Publication No. 97-0703, prepared by the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research.

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