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Apathy in older folks could signal shrinking brain
April 16th, 2014
04:13 PM ET

Apathy in older folks could signal shrinking brain

Being apathetic is usually defined as showing a lack of enthusiasm or energy. Most people who experience it say they just aren’t motivated to do anything.

Although anyone in any age group can become apathetic, it has been well documented that apathy tends to affect those in their golden years. Now scientists believe that an elderly person’s lack of emotion and indifference to the world could be a sign his or her brain is shrinking.

A study published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, and funded by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Aging, found that older folks, who are apathetic - but not depressed – may be suffering from smaller brain volumes than those without apathy.

Researchers looked at more than 4,300 people from the Netherlands, with an average age of 76, who did not have dementia. All underwent brain MRI scans and were later asked questions that measured their apathy symptoms, such as lack of interest in things, giving up activities they once enjoyed and a lack of energy.

Scientists at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands found that people with two or more of these symptoms had 1.4% smaller gray matter and 1.6% less white matter in their brains than those who showed little or no apathy. Gray matter is where memories and learning are stored in the brain, while white matter is the part of the brain that controls its communication system.

"Just as signs of memory loss may signal brain changes related to brain disease, apathy may indicate underlying changes," says study author Lenore J. Launer with the National Institute on Aging and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. "Apathy symptoms are common in older people without dementia. And the fact that participants in our study had apathy without depression should turn our attention to how apathy alone could indicate brain disease."

Although the findings are interesting, to some doctors they are not surprising. Dr. Marc Dalton of Dalton Psychiatry in Washington says he sees apathy in a number of his elderly patients. He believes the new findings could give him better insight on ways to approach their treatment.

“I think you have to look at how this may alter the way we view those with severe apathetic tendencies," he says. "Are these people giving up, or are they just tired? Can they still function, able to enjoy life at times, or is their apathy caused by something more serious?"

Study authors agree more research needs to be done. But the data does seem to show, they say, that apathy in older people could signal something more than just moodiness.

"If these findings are confirmed, identifying people with apathy earlier may be one way to target an at-risk group," notes Launer.

“The brain is still the final frontier,” says Dalton. “Taking this information and expanding on the research could lead to even more insight into how (brain) development can affect us mentally and physically.”


soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Sounds like

    Sounds like they should smoke some weed!!!

    April 16, 2014 at 16:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Eddie Bob

      Apathy? Who cares!

      April 17, 2014 at 16:33 | Report abuse |
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      April 19, 2014 at 11:21 | Report abuse |
  2. GOP Prayer

    The GOP Prayer/Mantra/Solution: Dear God...With your loving kindness, help us to turn all the Old, Sick, Poor, Non-white, Non-christian, Female, and Gay people into slaves. Then, with your guidance and compassion, we will whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, White, Christian, Male, and Straight. Or until they are dead. God...Grant us the knowledge to then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military during the next "unfunded/off-the-books" war. God...Give us the strength during our speeches to repeatedly yell........TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH!!!..........and........GET RID OF SS AND MEDICARE!!!
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    April 16, 2014 at 22:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Jack Brown

    Interesting to know that epathy symptoms are common in older people without dementia. I was diagnosed with Parkinsons Diseas two years ago and my neurologist thinks that I have dipression. It is true that finding out that you hae Parkinsons Disease can make a person dipressed. I am indifferent to emotions and lack interests in what is going on in the world. Now I find that this is due to abnormal brain. Neurologists are finding out that it's more than just moodiness. To people with Parkinsons Diseas the situation is hopeless.

    April 17, 2014 at 01:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Have you

      Have you tried weed?

      April 17, 2014 at 08:37 | Report abuse |
    • CINTI JACK

      To HAVE YOU: Weed tas a treatment for Apathy? Are you high?

      April 17, 2014 at 08:48 | Report abuse |
    • Have you

      No. Just wondering if weed could help someone with Parkinsons. Or maybe even someone who doesn't read very well.

      April 17, 2014 at 11:27 | Report abuse |
  4. Farrok

    In a world like this one who would guess? By the time you are 60 or 70 you have been tarred and feathered, boiled in oil and burned at the stake. It's bound to have an effect.

    April 17, 2014 at 09:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Lojack

    It's just because they've seen all the BS so many times over and over that they just quit caring.

    April 17, 2014 at 12:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • antoniodelaossa

      I think you hit the nail on the head! I'm pushing 60 and that is exactly how I feel!

      April 17, 2014 at 20:32 | Report abuse |

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.