A new study has found that apathy is present in nearly half of all people with dementia, with UK researchers finding it was often distinct from depression.
“It has a huge impact on the quality of life of people living with dementia, and their families”
Miguel da Silva Vasconcelos
They noted that, although common, apathy was often ignored as it was less disruptive in settings, such as care homes, than symptoms like aggression.
Defined by a loss of interest and emotions, they highlighted that it was extremely distressing for families and linked to more severe dementia and worse clinical symptoms.
The new research, led by the University of Exeter, analysed 4,320 people with Alzheimer’s disease from 20 cohort studies, in order to look at the prevalence of apathy over time.
Of the participants, 62% were female and 38% were male with a mean age 60 years.
At the start of the study, the authors said 45% presented with apathy – of those 62% were females and 38% were males – and 20% had persistent apathy over time.
They found a proportion had apathy without depression, suggesting the symptom might have its own unique clinical and biological profile, compared to apathy with depression and depression only.
“We now need to understand it better so we can find effective new treatments”
The findings were presented as a poster – titled The course of apathy in people with dementia – earlier this month at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles.
The study authors said: “Apathy was prevalent in this cohort, which is in concordance with previous literature, also apathy is persistent for nearly half of those who had apathy at baseline.
“There was a great prevalence of individuals who presented with apathy only, which suggests that apathy has possible a unique clinical and biological profile when compared to apathy with depression and depression only.
“These findings support future analysis to examine the possible existence of distinct apathy subsyndromes to further our understanding of this symptom,” added the researchers.
Study author Miguel da Silva Vasconcelos, from Exeter University and King’s College London, said apathy was an “under-researched and often ignored symptom of dementia”.
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He said: “It can be overlooked because people with apathy seem less disruptive and less engaging, but it has a huge impact on the quality of life of people living with dementia, and their families.
“Where people withdraw from activities, it can accelerate cognitive decline and we know that there are higher mortality rates in people with apathy,” he said.
“It’s now time this symptom was recognised and prioritised in research and understanding,” said Mr da Silva Vasconcelos.
Professor Clive Ballard, a leading expert in dementia also from the University of Exeter, added: “Apathy is the forgotten symptom of dementia, yet it can have devastating consequences.
“Our research shows just how common apathy is in people with dementia, and we now need to understand it better so we can find effective new treatments.”