Glossary of Alzheimer's Terms
If you are doing research on Alzheimers, then you have run across terms that you may not have known about or had to further research just to find out what was actually trying to tell you. We have combined a list of those terms in one easy to read list.
Terms And Definitions Commonly Used
— Adjuvant Therapy: Adjuvant therapies are treatments that you receive in addition to primary care. If you’re receiving chemotherapy treatment for cancer, for example, then you might also receive adjuvant therapy (like an adjuvant medicine) to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy.
— Alpha-lipoic Acid: Alpha-lipoic Acid (ALA) is a natural chemical produced within the cells of your body. Our bodies use ALA to assist in the process of converting sugar into energy. On the internet, you’ll find many supplements that advertise themselves as “age fighting” or “anti aging” ALA supplements. In reality, there’s no conclusive evidence to support ALA’s effects on either your lifespan or your cognitive health.
— Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: Better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, this is a condition where the motor neurons (the cells that let your brain communicate with and control your muscles) degenerate. Over time, this leads to loss of voluntary muscle control, muscle weakness, and ultimately, muscle atrophy. Certain modern medications have been able to slow down the progression of ALS, but there is no known cure.
— Attention Deficit Hyperactivity (ADHD): ADHD is a commonly diagnosed (both incorrectly and correctly) disorder among children who demonstrate problems with their attention, disruptive behavior, hyperactivity, and learning ability. Typically, ADHD is treated using behavioral therapy or medications like Adderall and Ritalin.
— Anti-Inflammatory: When a substance or medication is labeled “anti-inflammatory”, it means it reduces inflammation in a certain area of the body. Typically, the body becomes inflamed when it experiences illness, injury, or infection. One of the most popular anti-inflammatories used today is ibuprofen, which works as an NSAID, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. On the other hand, you have steroidal anti-inflammatories – like glucocorticoids – that produce mostly the same result. Every day, your body produces its own anti-inflammatory compounds to find infections, heal wounds, and keep the immune system functioning efficiently.
— Antioxidant: Every day, the cells in your body are exposed to oxidation. Generally speaking, this is what causes the human body to age and ultimately die over the course of a lifespan. Molecules become oxidized when they lose one or more electrons to another molecule. Oxidation also affects proteins. Oxidation isn’t a bad thing: our cells require oxidation in order to function properly (which is why we die without oxygen). However, improper oxidation can damage critical proteins. Improper oxidation is also thought to contribute to the development of many human diseases. When you consume antioxidants (like the ones in raspberries or tea), your body can use those antioxidants to reduce the damaging effects of oxidation and maintain the best possible oxidative environments for cellular health. Certain well-known compounds, including beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, melatonin, and CoQ10 are all types of antioxidants.
— Atherosclerosis: Atherosclerosis is a disease that involves the thickening of artery walls – like from consuming too much cholesterol and other fatty substances. It is one of the primary risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease.
— Autoimmune Disease: Autoimmune diseases or disorders cause your body’s immune system to stop functioning as it normally would. When your body has an autoimmune disease, the immune system begins to see the cells in your body as dangerous foreign objects and it attacks those cells. There are many types of autoimmune diseases – including fibromyalgia, lupus, and narcolepsy. Recent research has indicated that autoimmune disease could influence the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
— Brain Atrophy: Brain atrophy, like muscle atrophy, involves the breakdown of bodily compounds and tissues. With brain atrophy, those tissues include brain tissue and neurons. Depending on the type and progression of the brain disease, brain atrophy can be confined to a small area (or areas) of the brain, or it could affect the entire brain. When brain atrophy affects the entire brain, it causes overall brain shrinkage and a loss of brain functionality. Brain atrophy is common in certain types of degenerative brain conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and multiple sclerosis (MS).
— Beta-Amyloid: Beta-amyloids are a type of protein fragment peptides found naturally throughout the body. When your body develops large clusters of beta-amyloids, they’re called “plaques”. Typically, plaques can be found in the brains of those who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and similar diseases. The exact mechanisms of beta-amyloids remain relatively unknown. However, it’s generally accepted that beta-amyloid aggregation is bad for your brain and increases your risk of disease.
— Bioavailability: Bioavailability refers to the ease by which a chemical compound is absorbed into a living body.
— Bipolar Disorder: Bipolar disorder is a complex mental condition characterized by mood swings. Typically, those with bipolar disorder will experience feelings of extreme elation and high energy (called mania) followed by periods of severe depression. It’s unknown what causes bipolar disorder, although it seems to be related to both genetic and environmental factors. Doctors will typically treat bipolar disorder using a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
— Blood-Brain Barrier: The Blood-brain barrier, or BBB, is the semi-permeable barrier between your blood and your brain. Only certain substances are allowed to enter the brain, which makes the BBB a protective shield against potentially dangerous substances. When the BBB stops functioning properly, it can accelerate the progression of Alzheimer’s, MS, and stroke.
— Caloric Restriction: Caloric restriction, in general, refers to the act of restricting your caloric intake – like by eating less food. When we’re talking about Alzheimer’s research, caloric restriction refers to the idea that limiting the number of calories you eat will extend your lifespan. This hypothesis has shown early promise in rodents but has not yet been demonstrated in human studies.
— Centenarian: Centenarians are individuals who live to be 100 years of age or older.
— Cholesterol: Cholesterol is a building block of hormones and vitamins in the body. It plays a key role in cellular function, especially in the cell membrane. The two best-known types of cholesterol are HDL, known colloquially as “good cholesterol”, and LDL, “bad cholesterol”.
— Clinical Trial: Researchers use clinical trials to assess the safety and effectiveness of drugs or treatment programs. The best-quality clinical trials are randomized double-blind trials, where a group of people is randomly assigned to receive either a placebo (like a sugar pill or fake treatment) or the real medication. During a double-blind clinical trial, neither the patients nor the researchers know which group is which (hence the name “Double blind”).
— Cognitive Decline: When someone is experiencing cognitive decline, their brain is demonstrating a reduced ability to complete certain mental tasks – like form new memories, learn new skills, or maintain attention.
— Cognitive Function: Cognitive function is a broad term for all aspects of your brain performance, including everything from memory to problem-solving to sensory perception.
— Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE): CTE is a disease that is associated with traumatic brain injuries and is more common in those with a history of head trauma. CTE is an area of cognitive health currently undergoing enormous research – particularly in regards to professional athletes like football players and hockey players. It has also been observed in military veterans who have suffered blast injuries. CTE and Alzheimer’s have demonstrated some similarities – both involve tau proteins and possibly involve beta-amyloids, for example. However, CTE affects different parts of the brain than Alzheimer’s. There are currently no CTE treatments available. Complicating matters further is that CTE can only be diagnosed in a post-mortem analysis (i.e. after the individual has died).
— DASH Diet: The DASH Diet is a popular diet created by the US government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH). DASH stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension”. As the name suggests, the DASH diet is specifically designed to control high blood pressure. Key characteristics of the diet include lowering sodium intake and eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
— Depression: Depression is a mood disorder characterized by persistent feelings like sadness, despondency, or disinterest. Depression symptoms vary widely between individuals. Typically, depression can be linked to a wide number of biological or environmental factors.
— Dementia: Dementia is used to describe the loss of brain function that occurs to the point where it interferes with daily life beyond the cognitive degeneration associated with normal aging. Some of the most common causes of dementia include Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
— Diabetes: Diabetes is a term for a group of diseases characterized by high blood sugar levels. Sometimes, diabetes occurs because your body isn’t producing enough insulin. In other cases, your body has lost its ability to react to insulin. Diabetes is one major risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
— Dietary Supplements: Dietary supplements are used to add a specific dietary ingredient like vitamins, minerals, or enzymes to your diet. They’re called “supplements” because they’re meant to be added onto your normal diet – not act as a substitute. Dietary supplements face little regulation in the United States because they fall outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For example, dietary supplement manufacturers are allowed to make generalized claims like “helps support healthy brain activity” and are not required to provide proof for these statements. However, dietary supplements cannot claim to cure or treat any disease.
— Fatty Acids: When our body consumes fat, it attempts to break down that fat into fatty acids. These fatty acids are more easily absorbed throughout the body to boost processes like energy production.
— Flavonoid: Flavonoids are a type of chemical compound found in plants. Fruits like blueberries, citrus fruits, and cocoa are all valuable sources of flavonoids. Today, flavonoids are being heavily studied because of their perceived ability to reduce the risk of disease.
— Free Radicals: Free radicals are atoms with unpaired electrons. These electrons are “free” to react with other nearby atoms or molecules to cause a wide range of effects. Some contribute to the risk of disease, for example, because high numbers of free radicals can damage or kill cells. Antioxidants play a key role in neutralizing free radicals throughout the body.
— GRAS: GRAS stands for Generally Recognized as Safe. GRAS is a designation given to a chemical, food, or substance that is generally considered to be safe by all major scientific and clinical research to date. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decides whether or not a substance is GRAS. When a substance is part of the GRAS list, it exempts it from the usual Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), which limits the amount of certain food additives that can be added to foods, drugs, and cosmetics.
— Heart Disease: Heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, refers to a group of diseases related to the heart. Heart disease is one of the largest risk factors for the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Things like smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes all accelerate your heart disease risk.
— Huntington’s Disease: This hereditary disease is caused by a mutation in the Huntingtin gene (hence the name). Symptoms of this disease typically start to appear in the late 30s or early 40s. Common symptoms include a severe deterioration of cognitive ability and movement coronation. There is no known cure for Huntington disease, although certain treatments have been shown to slow progress of the disease.
— Hypertension: Hypertension, better known as high blood pressure, is a medical condition where the force against the walls of your blood vessels is regularly elevated. When you have high blood pressure, your heart has to work harder to circulate blood throughout the body.
— Hypotensive Disorders: Hypotensive disorders, or hypotension, are conditions related to low blood pressure. Low blood pressure can be caused by certain medications – like alpha and beta blockers.
— Inflammation: Our bodies use inflammation to heal tissue damage and fight against infections. Inflammation plays a role in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and also contributes to normal aging.
— Insomnia: Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. Insomnia is thought to be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and is often a symptom for other diseases or a side effect of medication.
— Insulin: Your pancreas secretes insulin using specialized cells. Insulin then goes into the body and helps to regulate how your body processes sugars and fats. For example, it instructs your liver and muscles to absorb glucose from the blood. When the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas get destroyed, it can lead to diabetes.
— Ketone Bodies: When your liver breaks down fatty acids, it releases ketone bodies into the bloodstream to provide energy for the body and brain.
— Kidneys: Your body has two kidneys, both of which play a critical role in maintaining the function of certain systems – like your blood pressure and urinary systems.
— Korsakoff’s Syndrome: Korsakoff’s Syndrome is a unique neurological condition caused by a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1). The syndrome is characterized by memory loss, apathy, and the tendency to create false memories or behaviors. In many cases, Korsakoff’s Syndrome is caused by severe alcoholism or similar nutritional deficiencies.
— Liver: The liver removes toxins from the blood and produces digestive chemicals. It also produces the essential proteins and hormones used by other organs and systems throughout your body.
— Medical Food: Medical foods are classified as nutritional food additives that are specifically used to manage a disease or condition. One key distinction between medical foods and nutritional supplements is that medical foods have a high level of safety (GRAS certification, for one). Another key distinction is that you require a prescription to take medical foods. Medical foods can also be labeled to treat specific conditions like dementia, although the FDA does not evaluate the validity of these claims.
— Mediterranean Diet: The Mediterranean diet focuses on the foods typically found in Mediterranean-style cooking. Common characteristics of the diet include fish, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables along with a minimal use of dairy products and limited sugar intake. Olive oil is also commonly used as a replacement for animal fats like butter.
— Meta-Analysis: Meta-analysis involves combining multiple research studies (including observational studies and randomized controlled trials) and then making conclusions about the data based on that information.
— Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI): MCI refers to a set of symptoms that indicate the beginning of cognitive impairment – including symptoms that go beyond what can be attributed to normal aging but do not interfere with daily activities.
— Mitochondria: Called “the powerhouse of the cells”, mitochondria are small organelles found within the cells that convert sugar and oxygen into ATP, which is the chemical energy that powers all cells in the body. When our mitochondria have trouble producing ATP, it can lead to an increased risk of many different diseases – including (many researchers suspect), Alzheimer’s.
— Multiple Sclerosis: Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a type of auto-immune disorder where your immune system attacks the myelin sheath, which is the protective coating surrounding neurons. Damage to the myelin sheath can lead to improper cognitive functioning. The specific cause of MS is unknown, but it’s thought to be caused by certain environmental or genetic factors.
— Neurons: Neurons are cells found within the central nervous system. They affect how we see, taste, hear, and smell the surrounding world. They also play a role in our thoughts, memories, and emotions. Many neurodegenerative conditions (like Alzheimer’s) are related to the breakdown of neurons.
— Neurotransmitters: Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that neurons use to communicate with one another. They play a critical role in cognitive functions. Key neurotransmitters include chemicals like acetylcholine, glutamate, GABA, and dopamine.
— Observational Research: Observational research is different from clinical research in that it typically involves large groups (like thousands) of people about which information is gathered to determine if there’s a correlation between a certain variable (like a food you eat or a lifestyle habit) and your risk of developing a certain disease. They often involve prospective (forward looking) or retrospective (backward-looking approaches) – say, when data is collected over a 10 year period.
— Off-Label Drug Use: This is the practice where a drug is prescribed for a condition despite the fact that the FDA has not specifically approved that drug to treat that condition. Off-label drug use is fully legal, although some health insurance companies won’t compensate you for your pharmacy bills.
— Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These so-called “long chain” fatty acids play a critical role in human health. Two of the most-frequently-discussed fatty acids are the omega 3s EPA and DHA, both of which are abundant in fatty fish and fish oil supplements. There’s some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids can be used to prevent dementia.
— Osteoporosis: Osteoporosis is an age-related disease characterized by bone thinning and increased frailty. Some types of osteoporosis can be treated with medicine.
— Parasympathetic Nervous System: The parasympathetic nervous system is one part of the autonomic nervous system (the sympathetic nervous system is the other). Your body relies on the parasympathetic nervous system to regulate bodily functions like your digestive system, internal organ functioning, and other resting activities.
— Parathyroids: Your body’s four parathyroid glands all secrete parathyroid hormones, which then regulate things like calcium levels in your bones and blood.
— Parkinson’s Disease: Parkinson’s disease is caused by the breakdown of a specific neuronal pathway in the brain that uses dopamine as a neurotransmitter. Typically, patients with Parkinson’s disease will have difficulty moving and controlling their muscle movements. Some patients with Parkinson’s will also experience dementia.
— Postoperative Cognitive Dysfunction: Postoperative Cognitive Dysfunction (POCD) refers to the cognitive impairment patients may experience following surgery (like a reduction in memory, learning ability, and attention span).
— Postoperative Delirium: Postoperative delirium (POD) occurs when the patient rapidly fluctuates between mental statuses following surgery (like with inattention and altered consciousness).
— Pulmonary Hypertension: The difference between hypertension and pulmonary hypertension is that pulmonary hypertension specifically refers to high blood pressure in the veins or arteries of the heart.
— Resveratrol: Resveratrol is a naturally-occurring chemical compound thought to be linked with health benefits like a reduced risk of heart disease. Resveratrol is particularly common in red wine, berries, grapes, chocolate, and peanuts. There’s also some evidence that resveratrol reduces your risk of metabolic disorders.
— Schizophrenia: Schizophrenia refers to a group of mental disorders where primary characteristic symptoms include behavioral changes, hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia.
— Stroke: During a stroke, the brain is damaged when blood supply to the brain has been interrupted. The brain requires a constant flow of blood. When that constant flow isn’t met, it can lead to damage throughout the brain. Strokes can cause enough brain damage to cause death. In cases where strokes do not cause death, they can lead to symptoms like paralysis and speech impairment.
— Sympathetic Nervous System: The sympathetic nervous system is one part of the autonomic nervous system (the parasympathetic nervous system is the other). The parasympathetic nervous system primarily controls your body’s homeostasis, but it also organizes your body’s fight or flight response.
— Tau Proteins: Tau proteins are proteins found in brain cells, where they perform important roles like supporting cellular structure. Tau proteins can malfunction, leading to aggregation in the brain (where they clump together into tangles and clusters). The aggregation of tau proteins plays a critical role in diseases like Alzheimer’s and other degenerative neurological conditions (although the exact mechanisms of this function aren’t fully known).
— Telomeres: Telomeres sit at the end of chromosomes and protect DNA from damage during cell division. When cells divide, their telomeres shorten. These telomeres continue to shorten every time until eventually, the telomere is too short for any further cell division.
— Triglycerides: Triglycerides are blood lipids whose primary role is to move fat and glucose in and out of the liver. High levels of triglycerides appear to be linked to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.
— Vascular Dementia: When there’s a problem with the circulation and blood supply to the brain to a point where it disrupts cognitive function, it’s referred to as vascular dementia.
— Vasoconstrictor: Vasoconstrictors are drugs that cause your blood vessels to constrict.
— Vasodilator: Any drug that widens your blood vessels is classified as a vasodilator.
— Wernicke’s Disease: This neurological condition is caused by a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1) and is often seen in individuals suffering from malnutrition linked to heavy alcohol abuse. Those with Wernicke’s Disease often have difficulty controlling eye movements and may demonstrate symptoms like confusion. Typically, Wernicke’s disease is treated with thiamine supplementation.
— White Matter Hyperintensities: Known as WMH, these compounds show up as bright white areas of the brain during a brain scan. High WMH volume typically correlates with an increased risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s. Some amounts of WMH are expected with normal aging – although too much can indicate a risk of stroke, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s.
Definitions courtesy of Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation.