Apathy in older folks could signal shrinking brain

Posted at 8:18 AM, Apr 17, 2014
and last updated 2014-04-17 08:18:02-04

Being apathetic is usually defined as showing a lack of enthusiasm or energy. Most people who experience it say they just aren’t motivated to do anything.

Although anyone in any age group can become apathetic, it has been well documented that apathy tends to affect those in their golden years. Now scientists believe that an elderly person’s lack of emotion and indifference to the world could be a sign his or her brain is shrinking.

A study published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, and funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Aging, found that older folks, who are apathetic — but not depressed — may be suffering from smaller brain volumes than those without apathy.

Researchers looked at more than 4,300 people from the Netherlands, with an average age of 76, who did not have dementia. All underwent brain MRI scans and were later asked questions that measured their apathy symptoms, such as lack of interest in things, giving up activities they once enjoyed and a lack of energy.

Scientists at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands found that people with two or more of these symptoms had 1.4% smaller gray matter and 1.6% less white matter in their brains than those who showed little or no apathy. Gray matter is where memories and learning are stored in the brain, while white matter is the part of the brain that controls its communication system.

“Just as signs of memory loss may signal brain changes related to brain disease, apathy may indicate underlying changes,” says study author Lenore J. Launer with the National Institute on Aging and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “Apathy symptoms are common in older people without dementia. And the fact that participants in our study had apathy without depression should turn our attention to how apathy alone could indicate brain disease.”

Although the findings are interesting, to some doctors they are not surprising. Dr. Mark Dalton of Dalton Psychiatry in Washington says he sees apathy in a number of his elderly patients. He believes the new findings could give him better insight on ways to approach their treatment.

“I think you have to look at how this may alter the way we view those with severe apathetic tendencies,” he says. “Are these people giving up, or are they just tired? Can they still function, able to enjoy life at times, or is their apathy caused by something more serious?”

Study authors agree more research needs to be done. But the data does seem to show, they say, that apathy in older people could signal something more than just moodiness.

“If these findings are confirmed, identifying people with apathy earlier may be one way to target an at-risk group,” notes Launer.

“The brain is still the final frontier,” says Dalton. “Taking this information and expanding on the research could lead to even more insight into how (brain) development can affect us mentally and physically.”

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