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New Study Raises Concerns About Feelings of Apathy Among Seniors

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A new report finds that feelings of apathy among seniors may signal degenerative changes to the brain. Such changes can have a significant impact on an individual’s behavior.

According to researchers at Bethesda, Maryland’s National Institute of Aging at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), apathy may be a sign that the brain is undergoing significant changes. Apathy can involve one feeling a lack of emotion or interest in activities that once elicited a great deal of passion. Symptoms may include reticence to socialize or participate in mild or moderate physical activities.

To examine the connection between apathy and brain changes closer, NIH researchers studied a group over 4,354 people whose average age was 76. Study participants underwent an MRI scan and answered a series of questions intended to detect signs of apathy.

The finding: those people who showed signs of apathy had 1.4 per cent less gray matter volume and 1.6 per cent less white matter volume in their brains. That’s significant because learning and memory storage occurs in the brain’s grey matter, while white matter helps with communication.

“Just as signs of memory loss may signal brain changes related to brain disease, apathy may indicate underlying changes,” noted the study’s lead author, Lenore J. Launer.

“The changes are generally thought to reflect neurodegeneration (i.e. dying neurons) in the gray matter and vascular disease — which leads to white and gray matter damage,” Launer said in a recent interview. “These pathologies do increase with age, but the hypothesis is they represent disease processes that can be prevented or reduced.”

Launer went on to say that further research is necessary to show conclusively that apathy is a sign of degenerative changes to the brain. Launer added that, if such findings are confirmed, “identifying people with apathy earlier may be one way to target an at-risk group.”

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