The aging process can make it difficult to continue pursuing activities a person once loved. It’s normal to slow down a bit with age, but many caregivers mistakenly assume that apathy and disconnection are normal parts of aging. According to a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry, apathy is actually a significant health risk factor that doubles the risk of developing dementia.
Preventing apathy in seniors can improve their quality of life, and may even help them live longer and healthier lives. Here’s what you need to know if a senior you love seems apathetic.
Apathy: An Early Dementia Warning Sign
For the study, researchers conducted a systematic review of 16 previous studies that included 7,365 memory clinic patients. They found that apathy was associated with an approximately two-fold risk of developing dementia.
This suggests that apathy may be an early warning sign of dementia, or could even contribute to its development. The study did not look at the causal relationship between apathy and dementia. This means that researchers don’t know if apathy caused dementia, or was an early symptom of dementia. In either scenario, however, the data points to the importance of monitoring for apathy.
Other research supports the link between dementia and apathy. The apathy that comes with depression may even be mistaken for dementia in seniors. Some forms of dementia, such as frontotemporal dementia, commonly manifest as behavior and mood changes well before any memory issues appear. So it’s important to ensure that seniors see a doctor for any mood or behavior change.
What to Look For
If you don’t live with your loved one, you might not immediately notice a change in their behavior or mood. Signs of apathy to watch for include:
- Disconnecting from loved ones.
- Not doing once-beloved activities, despite being physically able to do them.
- Seeming depressed or unhappy.
- Being unusually quiet in conversation.
- Not expressing opinions about food, family events, politics, or other topics that once mattered to them.
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness.
Some other early warning signs of dementia include:
- Forgetting how to do basic tasks, such as follow a recipe or take a shower.
- Memory problems that undermine daily functioning. For example, your loved one might lose their car in a parking lot and then get lost on the drive home.
- Driving issues, such as frequent accidents or damage to the car.
- Unusual behavior, such as aggression, excessive drinking, or socially inappropriate sexual behavior.
- Forgetting people’s names.
- Seeming confused in conversation.
How to Help
Dementia is a chronic, progressive illness. It’s also treatable. Seniors with dementia can thrive for many years in a supportive, compassionate environment. The key is to get your loved one the help they need.
Try beginning the conversation by asking your loved one why they feel apathetic. They may highlight specific things you can do to improve their quality of life. Then schedule an appointment with their physician. The doctor can rule out common causes of apathy, such as depression or nutritional issues, and assess your loved one for dementia.
If your loved one has dementia, the goal should be to help them remain as active and independent as possible. Some simple ways to promote a healthy and active lifestyle include:
- Visiting more frequently or setting up a family calendar with a regular rotation of visitors.
- Taking your loved one on outings if they no longer drive.
- Encouraging your loved one to remain physically active by taking a yoga class together or spending time in the garden.
- Supporting your loved one to continue pursuing the hobbies they love. Buy an artist painting supplies or ensure the gardener in your life has plenty of seeds.
The right senior living community can foster an active, engaged lifestyle while providing help with daily activities in a safe and nurturing environment. To learn more about what senior living offers your loved one and to find additional ways to support the senior in your life, check out our free dementia guide.