Apathy not depression helps to predict dementia

elderly person's hands being held, in one of which is a ball

Apathy offers an important early warning sign of dementia in individuals with cerebrovascular disease, but depression does not, research led by the University suggests.

Depression is often thought to be a risk factor for dementia but this may be because some depression scales used by clinicians and researchers partially assess apathy, say scientists from the universities of Cambridge, King’s College London, Radboud and Oxford.

The study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry is the first to examine the relationships between apathy, depression, and dementia in individuals with cerebral small vessel disease (SVD). SVD may occur in one out of three elderly individuals, causes about a quarter of all strokes, and is the most common cause of vascular dementia.

The team studied two independent cohorts of SVD patients, one from the UK and the other from the Netherlands. Across both cohorts, they found that individuals with higher baseline apathy, as well as those with increasing apathy over time, had a greater risk of dementia. In contrast, neither baseline depression nor change in depression had any detectable influence on dementia risk.

These findings were consistent despite variation in the severity of participants’ symptoms, suggesting that they could be generalised across a broad spectrum of SVD cases. The relationship between apathy and dementia remained after controlling for other well-established risk factors for dementia including age, education, and cognition.

Lead author, Jonathan Tay, from Cambridge’s Department of Clinical Neurosciences said: “There has been a lot of conflicting research on the association between late-life depression and dementia. Our study suggests that may partially be due to common clinical depression scales not distinguishing between depression and apathy.”

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Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (cam.ac.uk)