Can Alzheimer's patients recover their memory?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Two years ago, my 89 year old husband was deemed to have Alzheimer's. No tests were done, other than the mini one in the doctor's office. I had expressed to the doctor concern several times about my husband's memory problems, but when, five minutes after having his annual physical, my husband insisted that he hadn't seen the doctor, the doctor put him on Namenda and Aricept.

Since then, there have been many fairly good days, when I have doubted the diagnosis, and not so good days, when I have been convinced that it was accurate. Looking at information about the stages of Alzheimer's I've felt he is probably early-midstage. On the whole, though, the progress of the dementia has been slow, which I attribute to the meds. However, in the past week his longterm memory seems to have suddenly revived a great deal (though short-term is still bad), and he seems more alert and more like himself, taking an interest in things again. For example, in the year and a half since I took over our finances he has shown no interest at all, happy to have that responsibility off his shoulders. Now, he has started asking to see bank statements and other info from investments, saying that he used to take care of all that and feels guilty that he no longer does so. This is not done in a suspicious way or even in an anxious way -- just a curious wondering, and after a quick look he relaxes and seems pleased.

Is this apparent improvement in his mental capacity normal in Alzheimer's? I have never read of people perking up like this, and am wondering how long it's likely to last . . . and whether there is likely to be a sudden end to the improvement.

Will be very interested in your comments -- thank you!

Expert Answer

Ladislav Volicer, M.D., Ph.D., is recognized as an international expert on advanced dementia care. He is a courtesy full professor at the School of Aging Studies, University of South Florida, Tampa, and visiting professor at the Third Medical Faculty, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic. Twenty-five years ago, he established one of the first dementia special care units.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease change from day to day as you already noticed. They also depend on other conditions, such as depression. It is possible that your husband was depressed and his depression lifted recently. Another possibility is recovery from a small stroke that is sometimes combined with Alzheimer's disease. If your husband loses all interests again you might want to ask a physician if an antidepressant treatment would be indicated.