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Apathy: A Common but Understudied Symptom of Dementia

In a new U.K. study of 4,320 people with Alzheimer’s disease, researchers found that 45% of study participants had apathy — the absence of emotion, interest, concern or passion — and that the condition was often distinct from depression.

Apathy is the most common neuropsychiatric symptom of dementia and is often associated with more severe cases and worse clinical symptoms. In fact, apathy tends to have an even bigger impact on function than does memory loss.

“Apathy is an under-researched and often ignored symptom of dementia,” said Miguel de Silva Vasconcelos, PhD student at the University of Exeter and King’s College London.

“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 for 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. It’s now time this symptom was recognised and prioritised in research and understanding.”

In the study, a research team led by the University of Exeter analyzed 4,320 people with Alzheimer’s disease from 20 group studies, to look at the prevalence of apathy over time.

The researchers found that 45% of study participants presented with apathy at the beginning of the study and 20% had persistent apathy over time. In addition, a proportion of the subjects had apathy without depression, which suggests that the symptom might have its own unique clinical and biological profile when compared to apathy with depression and depression only.

“Apathy is the forgotten symptom of dementia, yet it can have devastating consequences,” said Professor Clive Ballard, of the University of Exeter Medical School. “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.”

Ballard also noted that in his team’s previous study, they found that exercise helped improve apathy among care home residents. This suggests that action can be taken to minimize the condition. “This is a real opportunity for interventions that could significantly benefit thousands of people with dementia,” he said.

The presentation, entitled “The Course of Apathy in People with Dementia,” was delivered at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles, California.

Source: University of Exeter

Apathy: A Common but Understudied Symptom of Dementia

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). Apathy: A Common but Understudied Symptom of Dementia. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2019 (Originally: 9 Aug 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2019
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