A new study has found apathy may serve as an early sign of the onset of dementia. The study specifically studied the relationship between apathy and those who have a family history – and therefore a genetic risk – of frontotemporal dementia.
The hope is that by identifying and treating early signs of apathy, people may have the ability to delay the onset of dementia or, at least, slow its progression. It’s possible that apathy, which typically manifests as a lack of interest or motivation – may act as a kind of predictor of dementia before any other symptoms are visible.
That could prove extremely valuable. One of the distinguishing characteristics of frontotemporal dementia is that it impacts a person’s behavior, personality and language skills even as they retain proper spatial skills and memory, according to the study conducted by researchers in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge.
What Is Apathy?
Apathy is a well-known word describing a feeling of disconnection with people and events around you. People who feel apathetic lose interest in those people and events and feel little motivation to do anything. They may also experience a lack of emotions.
In the context of the study, apathy does not describe a temporary feeling. Rather, it refers to a progressive condition that worsens without diagnosis or treatment. Scientists undertook the study to determine whether apathy acts as a precursor to frontotemporal dementia, which typically is diagnosed between the ages of 45 and 65 years of age.
This type of dementia changes behavior, language and personality, leading to impulsivity, socially inappropriate behavior, and repetitive or compulsive behaviors. As noted in a news release about the study from the University of Cambridge, “A common feature of frontotemporal dementia is apathy, with a loss of motivation, initiative and interest in things. It is not depression, or laziness, but it can be mistaken for them.”
Because dementia can begin to take hold in the brain before outward signs are recognized, scientists increasingly focus on ways to understand how dementia develops early on. An early warning sign gives clinicians, family and the patent the time they need to address the issue.
How Apathy Predicts Impaired Cognitive Function
The Cambridge study involved 304 healthy people who carry a faulty gene that is known to cause frontotemporal dementia, and 296 of their relatives without that gene. Researchers tracked the participants for several years. No one involved in the study had dementia, and most did not know whether they carried the faulty gene. The researchers looked for changes in apathy, memory and in MRI scans of the brain.
Importantly, the researchers saw apathy developed in people – often manifesting with subtle changes – before a change in cognition. Researchers also documented local brain shrinkage in participants in areas of the brain that support motivation and initiative. This occurred “many years before the expected onset of symptoms,” according to researchers.
They also found that apathy accelerated faster in those with the faulty gene. Taken together, these findings suggest that apathy in middle-aged people with a predisposition for frontotemporal dementia seemed predictive of cognitive problems in the future.
Signs of Apathy
Because this research focused specifically on frontotemporal dementia, its findings do not apply to other forms of dementia, at least with what is known from current research. Anyone concerned about a connection between apathy and dementia should first find if there is a history of frontotemporal dementia in the family.
While apathy can manifest in different ways, some of the signs of apathy include chronic issues in the following areas.
- A lack of energy to do everyday things
- Depending on others to plan almost everything you do
- No desire to learn new things, meet new people, or have new experiences
- Not caring about your own problems
- A lack of emotions, with no difference in how you feel when things go well or when things go badly
The research is part of a growing number of studies into early signs of cognitive issues, dementia and a loss of brain function. For those with the genetic disposition for frontotemporal dementia, signs of apathy may provide the early alert they need to better address the onset of dementia.