Is Apathy an Early Sign of Dementia?

By Serena Gordon
HealthDay reporter

WEDNESDAY, October 14, 2020 (HealthDay News) – Seniors who are not interested or excited about their usual activities may have a higher risk of developing dementia, new research shows.

The nine-year study of more than 2,000 older people – average age 74 – found that people with severe apathy (lack of interest or worry) were 80% more likely to develop dementia during the study period than those with low apathy.

“Apathy is not subtle. It is something that families can understand. More research is needed, but this is another potential warning symptom of the prodromal (early) phase of dementia, ”said lead author of the study, Dr Meredith Bock. She is a Clinical Fellow in Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco Institute for Neurosciences.

The prevalence of dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease) is on the rise and researchers are trying to find new ways to identify who is at risk for the disease. Symptoms of mood and behavior, such as depression or irritability, are examples of changes that can be indicative of an imminent diagnosis of dementia.

Previous studies have also linked mild cognitive impairment (a potential precursor to dementia) and apathy, but the researchers wanted to look at a group of people who did not yet have known memory or thinking problems.

The current study included people aged 70 to 79. None had dementia at first. The researchers also had medical records, including drug use, hospitalizations, and cognitive tests.

To assess levels of apathy, study participants answered questions, such as:

  • During the past four weeks, how often were you interested in leaving your home and going out?
  • During the past four weeks, how often were you interested in doing your usual activities?

After nine years, the researchers discovered that 381 people had developed dementia. In the low apathy group, 14% developed dementia. For those with a moderate level of apathy, that number was 19%. But one in four – 25% – in the severe apathy group had dementia by the end of the study.

When researchers checked data on age, education, heart and vascular disease, depression, and the genetic risk of Alzheimer’s disease, they reported that people with severe apathy in the body start of the study were 80% more likely to develop dementia later in life.


Bock said that by asking questions about apathy, doctors might be able to find out which patients have a higher risk of dementia. The information could be particularly useful in research trials, she added.

Rebecca Edelmayer, Director of Scientific Engagement at the Alzheimer’s Association, said: “This type of research is essential in helping us identify those at risk. We strive to identify those at higher risk as soon as possible. for treatments that will be transformative for patients and their families. But it is too early to say that if only looking at apathy can identify who is at risk for dementia. “

Edelmayer explained that it can be difficult to disentangle apathy from other changes that may arise, such as depression or isolation.

She said if you have concerns about your own memory or behavior or that of a loved one, you should speak to your doctor or call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 hotline at 1-800-272. -3900.

The results of the study were published online on October 14 in Neurology.

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