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This Subtle Change Might Indicate the Onset of Dementia

The earlier you catch it, the better.


When it comes to diagnosing dementia, the earlier the better. Identify symptoms and changes early on can vastly alter the course of treatment. Experts often advise patients to look out for signs of depression as an early indicator of dementia. However, a 2021 study suggests apathy may be a better measure.

So what exactly is apathy? It’s a state wherein a person has no interest in or emotional responses to their day-to-day lives. The researchers from this study define apathy as “a reduction in goal-directed behavior.” Most people experience apathy once in a while, but when it becomes excessive or out of character, especially in an elderly person, it could indicate a larger problem.

The new study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, found that apathy is probably a better indicator of the onset of dementia. Data was used from two other studies that included elderly subjects from the UK and the Netherlands. Over the course of several years, subjects were regularly screened for apathy, depression, and dementia.

According to the findings, the subjects who reported more apathy or increased apathy over time were at a greater risk of developing dementia. Surprisingly, those who reported depression or experienced an increase of depressive symptoms over time did not show a link to dementia risk.

The researchers suggest that even though there are similarities between the two conditions, apathy and depression affect the brain differently. Previous research indicates that apathy is associated with cerebral small vessel disease (SVD), which is a group of conditions that affect the small arteries, arterioles, venules, and capillaries of the brain. SVD is often a cause of stroke, but it is also the most common cause of vascular dementia.

So while depression is often broadly stated as a determining factor for dementia, these findings suggest that the more specific trait of apathy may be a much better indicator. If you notice that you or a person you know seems less interested or emotionally invested in daily life in a way that’s uncharacteristic, talk to a doctor and explain the symptoms. As mentioned, early detection can make a world of difference in treatment. For more tips on how to reduce your dementia risk, check out these guidelines from the Alzheimer’s Society.

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