Mayo Clinic Health Library

Question

Rapidly progressing Alzheimer's: Something else?

My mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, but she seems to be declining rapidly. Doesn't Alzheimer's usually get worse slowly?

Updated: 10-15-2011

Answer

Yes, Alzheimer's disease usually worsens slowly. But its speed of progression varies, depending on a person's genetic makeup, environmental factors, age at diagnosis and other medical conditions.

Still, anyone diagnosed with Alzheimer's who seems to be progressing quickly — or who experiences a sudden decline — should see his or her doctor. The doctor will look for complicating conditions or factors that can cause a rapid — but possibly reversible — progression of symptoms in someone with Alzheimer's disease.

Such conditions and factors could include:

  • Infections, such as pneumonia, a urinary tract infection or even a common cold
  • Reaction to some prescription medications, such as anticholinergics, narcotic pain relievers, sedatives, corticosteroids and some antidepressants
  • Fatigue or lack of sleep
  • Social or environmental changes, such as moving or the presence of new medical care staff or family members
  • Vitamin deficiencies, including B-12, thiamin, niacin and folate
  • Depression
  • Thyroid problems, such as hypothyroidism
  • Additional neurological conditions

Seek a prompt and thorough medical evaluation to determine the exact cause of rapidly progressing symptoms. Additional treatment may be required, and it may be possible to reduce or reverse symptoms.