Why Apathy May Be A Better Indicator Of Dementia Risk Than Depression

mbg Editorial Assistant By Eliza Sullivan
mbg Editorial Assistant
Eliza Sullivan is an editorial assistant at mindbodygreen. She received a B.S. journalism and a B.A. in english literature from Boston University.
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Dementia, in its various forms, affects an estimated 5 million (and growing) people over 65 in the United States. While research into the causes and potential treatments are ongoing and prolific, there's still no cure or real treatment available.

Treatments of dementia largely rely on early detection, which is why researchers continue to hone their knowledge of risk factors for dementia—and newly published research is suggesting editing the consideration of depression as a risk indicator to more specifically focus on apathy as a predictor of dementia.

The complex link between apathy, depression, and dementia.

According to a study published this week in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, the previous belief that depression can be a predictor of dementia may not be entirely correct. The researchers propose that apathy—which is often assessed as a part of depression tests but is not the same thing—may be a better predictor.

"There has been a lot of conflicting research on the association between late-life depression and dementia," explains Jonathan Tay, Ph.D., from Cambridge's Department of Clinical Neurosciences. "Our study suggests that may partially be due to common clinical depression scales not distinguishing between depression and apathy."

The study, which involved researchers from the universities of Cambridge, King's College London, Radboud, and Oxford, included subjects from the U.K. and the Netherlands. Participants were assessed for apathy, depression, and dementia regularly over the course of several years.

So what is apathy exactly? It's defined as a lack of "goal-directed behavior" and is commonly seen in patients with cerebral small vessel disease (SVD), a group of diseases that affect the small arteries, arterioles, venules, and capillaries of the brain. It is the most common cause of vascular dementia but is also a common cause of strokes.

In this study, the researchers saw that patients who showed higher apathy or increased apathy over time had a greater risk of developing dementia, while high levels of depression or increased depression over time did not have any clear link to dementia risk.

While there are some similarities between symptoms of depression and apathy, previous MRI research has linked apathy specifically to white matter system damage in patients with SVD, while depression has not shown the same physical link.

"This implies that apathy is not a risk factor for dementia per se but rather an early symptom of white matter network damage," says Tay. Damage done to white matter networks by SVD can underlie early forms of dementia, which result in apathy and other cognitive deficits.

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Using this research as a starting point for even more answers.

As there is still not a cure for dementia or SVD, early detection and management are the best treatment options. This new research shows that the practice of using depression broadly as an indicator neglects a more specific indicator of risk in apathy.

"Continued monitoring of apathy may be used to assess changes in dementia risk and inform diagnosis," he explains. "Individuals identified as having high apathy, or increasing apathy over time, could be sent for more detailed clinical examinations, or be recommended for treatment."

This research offers a starting point for further research into why apathy may be linked to future onset of dementia and how this knowledge can be used to inform treatment and testing plans.

"Understanding these relationships better could have major implications for the diagnosis and treatment of patients in the future," says Tay.

While there is no cure for dementia, there have been studies that have shown that practices as simple as spending time with friends, working out, or following these six suggestions from the WHO can decrease dementia risk over your lifetime.

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