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Apathy could be an indicator of dementia, study finds

Researchers say losing interest in activities that are usually fulfilling is a cause for concern

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Recent studies about Alzheimer’s have focused on risk factors associated with the disease and how consumers can potentially protect themselves from cognitive decline. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from the American Academy of Neurology has discovered a new symptom that could increase consumers’ risk of developing Alzheimer’s: apathy. 

Their work suggests that when older consumers become disinterested in activities that they usually engage in, it could be an early sign of dementia. 

“Apathy can be very distressing for family members, when people no longer want to get together with family or friends or don’t seem interested in what they used to enjoy,” said researcher Dr. Meredith Bock. “More research is needed, but it’s possible that these are signs that people may be at risk for Alzheimer’s disease and could benefit from early interventions and efforts to reduce other risk factors.” 

How behavior plays a role

The researchers tracked the health and wellness of over 2,000 older adults for nearly a decade, none of whom had a prior history of dementia. At the start of the study, the participants completed questionnaires that helped the researchers gauge their current levels of interest -- or lack thereof -- in activities they normally enjoyed. After nine years, the researchers evaluated the participants’ medical records to determine how apathy played a role in the development of dementia. 

The participants were divided into one of three groups based on their levels of apathy, and the researchers learned that those who were the most apathetic at the start of the study had a significantly higher risk of developing dementia. Compared to just 14 percent of participants who had the lowest levels of apathy that developed dementia, 25 percent of participants with the highest levels of apathy developed dementia. 

Overall, the researchers determined that severe apathy in older age was associated with an 80 percent increased risk of developing dementia. Though the researchers plan to do more work in this area, these findings highlight how mental health can play a role in cognitive decline. 

“While depression has been studied more extensively as a predictor of dementia, our study adds to the research showing that apathy also deserves attention as an independent predictor of the disease,” said Dr. Bock. “In fact, we believe that apathy may be a very early sign of dementia and it can be evaluated with a brief questionnaire.” 

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