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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease
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Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

The two main categories of Alzheimer's disease (AD) are familial and sporadic. Familial AD refers to a genetic form of the disease transmitted from one generation to the next by a mutation in a gene. Only 5 percent of all cases of AD are familial. Individuals with this form come from families in which as many as half of the members develop AD and the associated dementia. Fortunately, this form of the disorder is rare. The remaining 95 percent of AD cases are "sporadic," which means they randomly occur in the population at large without a genetic mutation. In sporadic cases, genetic and environmental risk factors do play a role but do not directly cause disease.

Early symptoms of the dementia caused by AD are usually subtle and may not be noticeable for a number of years. In fact, earlier signs usually are identified in retrospect and often by someone other than the affected individual. For many, the first symptom of AD is a change in memory. However, others may initially demonstrate difficulty with planning, language or visual perception. AD can affect an individual’s mood, resulting in depression, anxiety, irritability or withdrawal from usual social interactions.

As the illness progresses, individuals with AD need more assistance with their daily activities, such as appointments, managing bills or taking medications. Over time, individuals with AD may require assistance with more basic tasks, like bathing, dressing and feeding.

In most cases, AD is slowly progressive. While there is some variation between individuals, patients with AD may live many years with the illness.

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