Glossary of Alzheimer’s Disease Terms


Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on February 01, 2022

Your loved one’s doctors and other health care professionals may use some of these terms when they talk with you. Some are related to Alzheimer’s. Others are about legal documents that can help you manage the care they get. Scan through this A-Z list of terms so you are familiar with what’s discussed.

Activities of daily living (ADL): Everyday tasks such as eating, bathing, grooming, dressing, and going to the bathroom.

Adult day services: Programs that give people with Alzheimer’s a safe place to spend time with others, usually in a community center or dedicated facility. They don’t stay there overnight.

Advance directive: A legal document that states your wishes about how much medical care you would want in the case of an emergency. You may hear these called a “living will” or “a power of attorney” for health care.

Adverse reaction: A side effect.

Complementary therapies: The use of techniques other than drugs, surgery, or other routine medical care. You may also hear it called “alternative” medicine.

Amyloid: A protein that’s found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. It builds up into a “plaque” or “tangles.”

Apathy: Lack of interest, concern, or emotion.

Aphasia: Trouble understanding what people are saying or speaking.

ApoE: A gene that can have different changes in it. The “ApoE 4” mutation in this gene is linked to a greater chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease. But other genes are probably also involved. There is probably not just one “Alzheimer’s gene.”

Art therapy: A form of therapy that allows people with dementia to express their feelings through art.

Assessment: An evaluation, usually done by a doctor, of a person’s mental, emotional, and social skills.

Assisted living facility: A residential care setting that combines housing, support services, and health care for people in the early or middle stages of a disabling disease, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Autonomy: A person’s ability to make their own choices.

Behavioral neurologist: A doctor who specializes in behavioral and memory disorders caused by brain disease.

Caregiver: The main person in charge of caring for someone with a serious illness, such as Alzheimer’s disease. It’s often a spouse or adult child.

Clinical social worker: A professional who can counsel people or groups and help you find community resources, such as adult day care, home care, or nursing home services.

Clinical trial: Research studies that test new medicines to see if they are safe and if they work. They often are a way for people to try new medicine before it is available to everyone. Your doctor can tell you if one of these trials might be a good fit for your loved one.

Cognitive abilities: Mental skills such as judgment, memory, learning, comprehension, and reasoning.

Cognitive symptoms: In Alzheimer’s disease, these include problems with learning, understanding, memory, reasoning, and judgment.

Competence: A person’s ability to make informed choices.

Computed (axial) tomography (CAT or CT) scan: A powerful X-ray that makes detailed pictures inside your body.

Deficits: Things that are lacking. With Alzheimer’s, this means physical and mental skills that a person has lost, has trouble with, or can no longer do.

Delusion: A false idea that someone firmly believes and won’t give up even when someone shows them proof that it’s not true.

Dementia: Symptoms that happen because of brain diseases. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia.

Depression: Low mood that prevents a person from leading a normal life. It’s more than feeling down or sad. It lasts longer and can affect sleep and appetite. When you’re depressed, you don’t get as much pleasure from things you used to enjoy.

Disorientation: Losing your sense of time, direction, and recognition. With Alzheimer’s, this can happen even in very familiar settings or with people you’ve known for a long time, including family members.

Durable power of attorney: A legal document in which you can authorize another person, usually a trusted family member or friend, to make legal decisions when you are no longer able to do so yourself.

Durable power of attorney for health care: A legal document in which you choose another person to make all decisions regarding health care, including choices regarding doctors and medical treatment, at the end of your life.

Dysphasia: Not being able to find the right word or understand the meaning of a word.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease: Alzheimer’s disease that starts before age 60. It’s not common. Less than 5% of people with Alzheimer’s have it.

Early stage: The beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in which symptoms range from mild to moderate.

Elder law attorney: A lawyer who handles legal issues that affect older adults.

Echocardiogram: An ultrasound of your beating heart, It creates images with sound waves.

Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG): It measures electrical signals from your heart and tells how fast your heart is beating and if it has a healthy rhythm.

Electroencephalogram (EEG): It measures brain activity. The doctor or technician will place metal discs called electrodes on your scalp for this short test.

Familial Alzheimer’s disease: Alzheimer’s disease that runs in families.

Gait: How a person walks. People in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease often have a “reduced gait,” which means it has become harder for them to lift their feet as they walk.

Genetic counseling: A process in which a trained genetic counselor helps you understand whether your genes make you more likely to get a certain condition.

Genetic testing: Tests to check on gene problems that make you more likely to get a disease. It may be as simple as a blood test. But you will need genetic counseling (see definition above) to understand the results.

Geriatrician: A doctor who specializes in the medical care and treatment of older adults.

Guardian: A person appointed by the courts who is authorized to make legal and financial decisions for someone else who cannot do it themselves.

Hallucination: Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling something that is not there.

Hoarding: Collecting and putting things away in order to guard them.

Hospice: Comfort and care as you get close to the end of your life. Pain management is a big part of it. It can also include emotional and spiritual support, if desired. Hospice is not necessarily about being in a certain facility. It’s a type of medical care that can happen anywhere.

Incontinence: Loss of bladder or bowel control.

Late-onset Alzheimer’s disease: Alzheimer’s that starts after age 65. It’s much more common than “early onset” of the disease.

Late stage: In this stage of the disease, people cannot take care of themselves and need a lot of help with everyday tasks.

Lewy body dementia: A type of dementia. It’s not the same as Alzheimer’s disease.

Living trust: A legal document in which someone (usually called the “grantor” or “trustor”) can appoint someone else as “trustee” (usually a person or financial institution) to invest and manage their assets.

Living will: A legal document that states your wishes about medical care at the end of your life. For instance, any situations in which you would want doctors to use life support machines.

Long-term care: Medical, personal, and social services that meet the physical, social, and emotional needs of people who are disabled or ill for a long time.

Mini-Mental State Examination: A standard mental status exam routinely used to measure a person’s basic cognitive skills, such as short-term memory, long-term memory, orientation, writing, and language.

MoCA: An early assessment for diagnosing patients with illnesses ranging from Parkinson’s to brain trauma and gauging an appropriate follow-up and treatment plan.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): It uses powerful magnets and radio waves to make pictures of organs and structures inside your body.

Music therapy: Therapy that uses music to improve physical, psychological, mental, and social abilities.

Neurologist: A doctor who is trained to diagnose and treat disorders of the nervous system.

Neuropsychologist: Someone who has an advanced degree (PhD or PsyD) in clinical psychology or a related field and who specializes in evaluating and managing brain problems.

Occupational therapists: Health care professionals that teach people how to do routine activities (such as getting dressed, walking up or down stairs, or cooking) after injury or illness using therapy and rehabilitation.

Onset: When a disease begins.

Pacing: Wandering or walking back and forth. Triggers can include things like pain, hunger, or boredom, or by some distraction, such as noise, smell, or temperature.

Paranoia: Suspicion and fear of someone else that is not based on fact.

Pillaging: Taking things that belong to someone else.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: A test that can show how an organ or tissue is working. For instance, it can show blood flow in the brain.

Prognosis: What’s likely to happen over time with a disease.

Progressive disorder: A condition that gets worse over time.

Psychiatrists: Medical doctors who specialize in treating mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders. They can prescribe medications and provide counseling. They will have “MD” or “DO” after their name.

Psychologists: Counselors who usually have advanced degrees but who are not doctors and cannot prescribe medicine. Instead, they specialize in “talk therapy,” to help you with your emotions and learn different ways to manage your challenges.

Psychosis: A general term for a state of mind in which thinking becomes irrational and/or disturbed. It can include delusions and hallucinations, for instance.

Psychotherapy: Counseling with a professional can help treat many psychiatric and emotional conditions. You may also hear this called “talk therapy.”

Repetitive behavior: Questions, stories, and outbursts or specific activities repeated over and over again. It’s common in people with Alzheimer’s.

Respite: A short break or time away.

Respite care: Services that provide people with temporary relief from their caregiving tasks. Examples of respite care include in-home assistance, short nursing home stays, and adult day care.

Restraints: Devices that restrict and control a person’s movement in order to keep that person safe. Many facilities are “restraint-free” or use other methods to reach the same goal.

Risk factor: Something that makes a person more likely to develop a disease or condition.

Safe Return: The Alzheimer’s Association’s nationwide identification, support, and registration program that assists in the safe return of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias who wander and become lost.

Shadowing: Following, mimicking, and interrupting behaviors.

Side effect: A problem linked to treatment. They can vary in how serious they are.

SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) scan: A procedure that measures blood flow in different areas of the brain.

Skilled nursing care: A level of care that includes ongoing medical or nursing services.

Special care unit: A designated area of a residential care facility or nursing home that cares specifically for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Sundowning: Unsettled behavior that happens in the late afternoon or early evening. Many people with Alzheimer’s have this. They may become more upset or anxious. Doctors don’t know exactly why fading light seems to have this effect.

Support group: A group of patients, caregivers, family, friends, or others who meet with a facilitator to talk about their experiences, challenges, solutions, and emotions.

Suspiciousness: Mistrust. Many people with Alzheimer’s feel this way as their memory worsens. For instance, they may think their belongings have been stolen because they forgot where they left them or question someone’s motives if they can’t remember who they are.

Tau: A protein that’s naturally in the structure of nerve cells. Abnormal tau can be in the “tangles” of plaque in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

Trigger: Something that that sets off a particular behavior.

Trustee: The person or financial institution appointed to manage the assets of a living trust.

Urinalysis: A lab test that uses a sample of someone’s urine.

Wandering: Straying from home or the place where they are supposed to be.

Will: A legal document in which someone says how they want their estate handled after they die. It also appoints an “executor,” who manages the estate.

Show Sources


Alzheimer’s Association web site: “Glossary.” “Glossary” and “Alzheimer’s”

National Institute on Aging: “Alzheimer’s Disease: Unraveling the Mystery.” “Glossary.”

American Hospice Foundation: “FAQ: What is hospice care?”

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