Older people who are not depressed, but have symptoms of apathy, may have a higher risk of developing brain changes linked to dementia, says a new study.
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Researchers explored the link between apathy and brain imaging changes in older adults. The researchers were from the University Medical Center Utrecht and other institutions.
As a result of the study, the researchers theorize that apathy symptoms could signal early changes to the brain, before development of memory or other thinking changes that accompany dementia.
Apathy and dementia
Apathy is a related group of behavior traits that people with dementia show. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.
Dementia is the loss of thinking, remembering, reasoning and behavioral abilities to the extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.
Apathy is when a person loses motivation and interest in daily activities. These people, however, do not have depression.
People often confuse apathy with depression. But people with apathy may not feel sad.
People with apathy often have trouble starting activities. But they can participate and enjoy these activities if others do the planning.
Gray and white matter in the brain
The researchers studied nearly 4,400 people. These people were around the age of 76 and did not have dementia. The participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging scans. They also answered questions that measure apathy symptoms.
The researchers found that people with two or more apathy symptoms had smaller amounts of gray matter and white matter in their brains.
Gray matter is the place where learning occurs and where the brain stores memories. White matter acts as communication lines that connect parts of the brain.
Identifying apathy earlier could be a way to target people at risk for developing dementia, the researchers say.
“This may signal an early symptom of changes to the brain due to either diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, or stroke, or perhaps both,” says neurologist James Leverenz, MD.
Dr. Leverenz is a dementia expert at Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. He did not take part in the study.
“I think it is something to pay attention to,” Dr. Leverenz says. “If you start to notice someone who is normally very active and now is not getting out as much and not interested in activities as much, it’s worth exploring.”
The researchers could not decide whether the brain atrophy and lesions came before the apathy symptoms or whether all three resulted from the same cause.
The study appears online in the journal Neurology.