Everybody worries when their memory slips. Misplaced car keys. Forgotten names. Problems keeping track of the bills. These moments of forgetfulness can cause a great deal of anxiety.
But researchers warn that there’s a more common sign of memory problems that gets short shrift, when instead, it should be regarded as more important than the occasional “senior moment.”
What’s more, these researchers are concerned that healthcare providers who should know better often overlook this problem.
The most common sign of dementia? According to medical researchers at the University of Exeter in England, it’s apathy. These researchers report this neuropsychiatric symptom of dementia has an even bigger impact on loss of functioning in day-to-day life than memory loss.1
Apathy and Severe Dementia
The Exeter scientists define apathy as a loss of interest in life and a severe dampening of emotions.
The symptoms of apathy include giving up enjoyable activities and hobbies, preferring to stay at home instead of socializing, and displaying a lack of personal energy.
While at first glance apathy may not appear as serious a problem as forgetfulness, don’t be misled: it’s of major concern.
For one thing, the researchers say apathy is tied to a greater risk of developing a severe case of Alzheimer’s or developing other types of dementia with serious clinical symptoms.
Researcher Miguel da Silva Vasconcelos warns, “Apathy is an under-researched and often ignored symptom of dementia. 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.”
When the Brain Grows Smaller
When you develop apathy, but not depression, it can also signify that your brain is shrinking, which can mean your memory and other intellectual abilities will likewise shrink.
Research by the National Institute on Aging finds that a shrinking brain—or atrophy— is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. As neurons die, many brain regions begin to shrink. By the final stages of Alzheimer’s, there’s significant loss of brain volume.2
That’s why the results of a study the National Institute on Aging conducted on apathy is so troubling.
The study involving more than 4,000 people who did not have Alzheimer’s and with an average age of 76, revealed that people with two or more symptoms of apathy had smaller brains.3
In the research, the brain’s gray matter, which controls muscles and interprets your sensory information, was on average 1.4 percent smaller in those who were apathetic. Meanwhile, their white matter, which facilitates the transmissions of signals in the brain, was reduced by 1.6 percent.
Keeping Apathy at Bay
If you want to protect yourself against sliding into apathy, the research I’ve found shows that keeping engaged in social activities and staying intellectually stimulated is vital.
For instance, a study at Penn State that looked at older folks in nursing homes found those who were in a more stimulating environment were less likely to be apathetic.4 So even if you’re not that old and you’re not in an institution, you should still keep challenging yourself to be constantly engaged in finding out what’s going on in the world. Stay informed about the lives of your friends and family. Read books or watch movies that rise above the usual lowest-common-denominator pop culture products.
The Penn State researchers note, “Our results showed that clear and strong environmental stimulation is related to lower apathy.”
Other ways to keep apathy from bogging down your memory:
- Listen to live music: Research at the University of Southampton in England shows that listening to live musical performances decreases apathy in people who have memory problems. In fact, listening to live music does more to counteract apathy than listening to recorded music. In addition, the research suggests that making your own music also probably has benefits.5
- Take an art class and learn how to paint or draw: Studies show that engaging in artistic activities engages the mind and can banish apathy.6
- Dance: Many studies show how dancing is good for the brain. Research on people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s documents how dancing can reduce apathy. According to researcher Christina Hugenschmidt, dancing may result in “increased connectivity in certain brain regions. Those changes correlated with changes in balance and also decreased apathy and decreased depressive symptoms.”7
It’s clear that the answer to the dangers of apathy is to live a little!
Don’t give in to the dangers of withdrawal. Yes, I know we live in challenging times. But you need to make an effort to keep your brain engaged. As researcher Clive Ballard of the University of Exeter Medical School warns, “Apathy is the forgotten symptom of dementia, yet it can have devastating consequences.”