July 2019| University of Exeter – Apathy: The forgotten symptom of dementia
Apathy is the most common neuropsychiatric symptom of dementia, with a bigger impact on function than memory loss – yet it is under-researched and often forgotten in care.
A new study has found that apathy is present nearly half of all people with dementia, with researchers finding it is often distinct from depression.
Although common, apathy is often ignored as it is less disruptive in settings such as care homes than symptoms like aggression. Defined by a loss of interest and emotions, it is extremely distressing for families and it is linked with more severe dementia and worse clinical symptoms.
Now, research led by the University of Exeter and presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in LA has analysed 4,320 people with Alzheimer’s disease from 20 cohort studies, to look at the prevalence of apathy over time.
At the start of the study, 45% presented with apathy, and 20% had persistent apathy over time. Researchers found that a proportion had apathy without depression, which suggests that the symptom might have its own unique clinical and biological profile when compared to apathy with depression and depression only.
Miguel de Silva Vasconcelos, PhD student at the University of Exeter and King’s College London, said : “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. Where people withdraw from activities, it can accelerate cognitive decline and we know that there are higher mortality rates in people with apathy. It’s now time this symptom was recognised and prioritised in research and understanding.”
Professor Clive Ballard, of the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “Apathy is the forgotten symptom of dementia, yet it can have devastating consequences. Our research shows just how common apathy is in people with dementia, and we now need to understand it better so we can find effective new treatments. Our WHELD study to improve care home staff training through personalised care and social interaction included an exercise programme that improved apathy, so we know we can make a difference. This is a real opportunity for interventions that could significantly benefit thousands of people with dementia.”
The presentation was entitled ‘The Course of Apathy in People with Dementia’.
Up to 80 per cent of community care for older adults is provided by unpaid informal caregivers. In the absence of government supports, many of them struggle with exhaustion, stress and depression. (Shutterstock)
Her stress increased as her parents started to deteriorate physically and mentally. She tried to stay ahead of the ever-changing situation, but became exhausted after her dad started waking in the middle of the night and getting dressed to go out.
She looked on the internet for support in her care-giving role.
Increasingly, these older adults have multiple chronic conditions (MCC), such as dementia and stroke, not just one. And as this prevalence of multiple conditions increases worldwide, it’s associated with poor health and higher health-care use and costs.
Caregivers report that they do not receive adequate home care or respite services to support them in their roles. There are, for instance, long wait lists for long-term care beds.
While caregiving is rewarding, many informal caregivers experience stress and anxiety leading to their own poor mental and physical health.
Informal caregivers feel overwhelmed with multiple requests for their time and frustrated when they can’t plan too far in advance.
“I felt like I was spending a lot of time waiting. Waiting for people to get ready. Waiting for people to get back to me. Waiting at appointments,” said Brenda.
Some reach a crisis point and leave their loved ones in the hospital emergency room because they are unable to continue in their caregiving role. This contributes to an already overburdened acute-care system.
Web-based supports can help
We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis that examined the impact of different types of internet-based interventions on caregiver mental health outcomes.
One example of such a web-based support is My Tools 4 Care, developed by our colleague Dr. Wendy Duggleby at the University of Alberta and her team.
We found evidence that internet-based interventions had a positive effect on reducing depressive symptoms, stress, distress and anxiety in caregivers of adults with a chronic condition.
The most effective category of online support was information and/or education with or without professional psychological support. Information provided together with combined peer and professional psychological support was also effective, to a lesser extent.
Caregivers in our study made recommendations to improve the content and format of online resources. Suggestions included: Providing personalized information about local resources; sharing practical caregiving tips and strategies; creating opportunities to connect online with other caregivers; and having user-friendly features that are easy to navigate.
Nova Scotia leads the way
Caregiving comes with costs to the caregivers — to their health and to their finances.
Half of caregivers are between 45-65 years of age, in the peak of their earning years. They often take time off work to take their loved ones to appointments, and some must leave work early when the health of their loved one worsens. Out-of-pocket expenses for equipment, medications and parking can also be expensive.
Nova Scotia is the only province in Canada that has a monthly income or allowance for caregivers, known as the Caregiver Benefit Program. Financial assistance from the government for caregivers in other parts of Canada mainly take the form of federal tax credits and insurance benefits.
John Berry, a founder member of the Beastie Boys, has died of dementia at the age of 52. Berry’s father told Rolling Stone magazine that his son died from frontal lobe dementia, a rare form of dementia more properly referred to as fronto-temporal dementia.
Symptoms of fronto-temporal dementia usually begin in late middle age. Because the disease is not very well known, people with fronto-temporal dementia often have delays in receiving a diagnosis and may find the services they need are not available.
A tricky term
The terms used for this dementia are confusing. The changes in the brain are referred to as “fronto-temporal lobar degeneration”. These do not initially have any effect on people’s behaviour. Once signs and symptoms show up, it is possible to diagnose the condition as one of the “fronto-temporal dementias”.
When the frontal lobes – the parts of the brain lying immediately behind the forehead – are mainly affected, there are changes in behaviour or personality, resulting in “behavioural variant fronto-temporal dementia”. When the temporal lobes – parts of the brain near the temples – are mainly affected, dementia shows up through changes in language, of which there are two types: semantic dementia and progressive non-fluent aphasia. Whichever type of fronto-temporal dementia people have, they do not come to the doctor complaining of the sort of problems with memory loss that most of us think of as being signs of dementia.
We don’t know the specific symptoms that John Berry had as each case of fronto-temporal dementia is different, but about four to 15 people in every 100,000 have fronto-temporal dementias – and there are some common symptoms.
Losing the supervisor
There is huge variation in how fronto-temporal dementia progresses. But over time, it usually affects more and more aspects of thinking and functioning. It is a condition that shortens life, with people living about three to ten years after diagnosis.
So what happens during the earlier stages of behavioural variant fronto-temporal dementia – the type that is sited in the frontal lobes? One way of thinking of this area of the brain is to imagine it as the supervisor of complex activities and social behaviour. When the supervisor starts to do its job poorly, people develop trouble with complicated tasks. They may not be able to get started, so they may seem apathetic and lacking in energy. When they get started they may get stuck in a groove.
One carer we spoke with described how his brother would drive the car late into the night until it ran out of petrol even though he knew, on one level, that he ought to stop to fill up.
Sometimes people repeat an action over and over in exactly the same way, perhaps arranging objects very precisely or following a set daily routine according to a strict timetable. As the frontal lobe overseer loosens control, people often become uninhibited. They may become blunt and tactless. They may act on appetites and urges in ways that are quite out of character: touching people, swearing profusely when irritated and eating excessive amounts of sweet foods.
A particular difficulty for friends and family is that people with this dementia lose their ability to empathise. They may no longer offer comfort if someone is in tears and may seem very self-centred.
As not many people are familiar with the condition, it is often mistaken for other more common conditions. People may put the changes down to mid-life crisis, stress at work, depression or the menopause. It is possible that the condition is often misdiagnosed.
On average, it takes four years to diagnosis after symptom onset for younger people with dementia, twice as long as for those over 65 years of age, by which time, relationships may have broken down. People with fronto-temporal dementia are often at a stage of life where they still have children – and sometimes parents – who depend on them. So this, coupled with their increasing needs for support can be very stressful for everyone. Yet a recent national survey, currently in press, found there was a lack of provision of appropriate care across most of the country.
Biomedical research is making strides in identifying many of the proteins that accumulate as plaques in the brains of the people affected. The genetic aspects which affect about one in every five to ten cases are also now understood. However, with a cure still a long way off, research into how to support and assist people to manage their day-to-day lives is also very important. In our research we have taken detailed accounts of the experiences of those affected and we will be using these to develop and test ways of helping people and their families to manage and live better with the condition.
Humans have big brains and our frontal lobes, just behind the forehead, are particularly huge. Injuries to this part of the brain often happen after blows to the head or a stroke. Paradoxically, some people with frontal lobe injuries can seem unaffected – until they’ve been carefully evaluated.
The frontal lobes are sometimes described as the executives of the brain, or conductors of the orchestra. Among other things, they control and organise our thinking and decision-making processes. You rely on your frontal lobes when you do things like make plans, switch from one activity to another, or resist temptation.
Some people with frontal lobe injuries seem completely normal in short one-to-one conversations, but they actually have great difficulty with everyday tasks, such as cooking, organising their paperwork or remembering to take medication. This is called the frontal lobe paradox because, even though these people seem unimpaired when assessed, they have significant difficulties in everyday life.
Without specialist expertise in acquired brain injuries, it can be almost impossible to spot frontal lobe paradox because, in many cases, people will still be able to speak normally and seem remarkably unimpaired. They may be unaware of their difficulties and deny that they need any help or support.
People affected by the condition are not lying when they say they don’t need help or support. Instead, they may lack knowledge of their own condition because areas of the frontal lobes that are responsible for self-monitoring and developing insight have been affected by their brain damage.
A second reason for the frontal lobe paradox is that the skills needed for an assessment interview are different from those needed in everyday life. The structure and routine of an environment, such as a rehabilitation ward, can, in effect, play the role of someone’s frontal lobes. This can mask the difficulties people experience in less structured, open-ended environments. For this reason, a person’s level of ability needs to be assessed in a situation that resembles everyday life. A seemingly simple task, such as going shopping, can reveal difficulties in people who appear unimpaired on standard tests of memory and attention, and have normal intelligence.
Lack of specialist training
Neuroscientists and doctors have known about the frontal lobe paradox for at least 50 years, but it is not always understood by non-specialists. This situation can lead to people not receiving help they desperately need.
For example, in England and Wales, social workers and care managers are usually responsible for deciding whether a person has the capacity (under the Mental Capacity Act 2005) to decline support or care. These are hardworking professionals who are motivated to act in the best interests of those under their care, but many receive little or no specialist training in brain injury.
These professionals tend to base their decision about a person’s mental capacity on a short face-to-face interview. This is exactly the situation that can lead to people with frontal lobe damage being denied the care that they need.
The assessment provides the support needed for a person to sound competent and able, but only for the duration of the assessment. In one example, a woman persuaded a series of professionals that she could safely live alone after a significant brain injury. In reality, she could not make meals for herself or remember to take her lifesaving medication. Sadly, she died at home shortly afterwards.
We don’t know exactly how common the condition is, but the frontal lobe paradox is probably found in a much higher number of people than you might first imagine. As well as those who have suffered blows to the head and strokes, it can affect people with certain infections, some forms of dementia and even poorly controlled diabetes.
It is vital that social workers and care managers are trained on brain injury to protect the interests of people with frontal lobe injuries. People with these injuries are in particular need of support, but they are often the least likely to receive it.
The Alzheimer’s Society recently issued a call for people with symptoms such as memory loss and confusion to seek early medical help. The British charity is worried that people may be putting off getting a dementia diagnosis and not receiving the health care and support they need. As the Alzheimer’s Society’s recent blog post put it: “A lack of diagnosis is denying many people with dementia the chance of getting the best possible treatment, information and support – evidence shows the earlier on you receive these, the better your chance of living well for longer.” But is early diagnosis always a good thing?
Early diagnosis has also been a key policy aim for government. We can see this in the National Dementia Strategy, and David Cameron’s Challenge on Dementia. A few years ago, the NHS even trialled a scheme to pay GPs £55 for each dementia diagnosis made. This move was widely condemned by doctors’ groups and quietly dropped after six months. In any event, the push for earlier diagnosis continues. So what exactly are the benefits of earlier diagnosis? And who are the beneficiaries?
There are no known treatments to prevent or reverse dementia, although drugs called memantine and acetylcholinesterase inhibitors can help to relieve symptoms .
In the course of my recent fieldwork, however, I met some people with memory loss who invested hope in these treatments beyond what was possible. They believed that getting onto anticholinesterase inhibitors as soon as possible could delay further decline.
One of the most difficult experiences in my recent research was meeting a woman who felt she had been denied treatment by the doctors, and asked me and my colleague if we were able to prescribe them for her. We had to explain that we were not clinically qualified, and in any case, the drugs would not prevent the progression of dementia. But false hope can translate into big profits for drugs companies.
The anticholinesterase inhibitor market had an estimated value of US$4.2 billion globally in 2011, with this figure set to increase over coming years as people live longer. One recent market analysis identified early diagnosis as “a challenge [that] will affect the growth of the market over the 2013-2023 forecast period”.
Thankfully, drug treatment is not the only option for people with dementia. Anyone with suspected dementia can access a memory clinic on the NHS to seek practical support for their needs. Memory clinics typically include a range of health professionals – including occupational therapists, psychologists, specialist nurses and psychiatrists. These multidisciplinary teams can help with emotional and occupational support. They can also offer advice on adapting homes – for instance, by providing memory aids, grab rails for bathing and toileting, and extra lighting.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) also recommends “group cognitive stimulation programmes”. Cognitive stimulation uses enjoyable activities to engage thinking and memory – for example, musical activities, reminiscence sessions, and games. A recent review suggests this approach could help to maintain cognitive abilities, particularly memory and communication.
However, the current evidence relies on a number of small trials of often quite different activities, going back to 1979. Nevertheless, in the absence of effective drug treatments, cognitive stimulation is important for many people with dementia, and continues to attract research and practice interest.
Finally, we shouldn’t underestimate the psychological importance of receiving a diagnosis. Overall, the evidence shows a mixed picture. On the one hand, people are glad to understand the cause of their symptoms, to be able to plan for the future, and access resources such as dementia support groups. However, people often worry about the stigma of dementia, and some want to avoid the emotional impact of the diagnosis.
Is earlier better?
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been involved in a project looking at people’s experiences of mild cognitive impairment. This syndrome is defined as a “boundary state” between cognitive ageing (a normal process) and dementia.
If the Alzheimer’s Society’s suggestion that dementia is being under-diagnosed holds, then people with mild cognitive impairment are an anomaly. They have sought medical advice for possible dementia symptoms which are not severe enough for a diagnosis. Might it be that more people are already seeking help earlier, as the Alzheimer’s Society hopes? It seems plausible.
After the National Dementia Strategy was launched, there was a 12% increase in dementia diagnosis rates in the UK between 2009 and 2011, and recent studies show a continued upward trend.
So, who benefits from early diagnosis? As suggested above, a number of commercial and charitable organisations stand to gain substantially. There are also some benefits that may accrue to people with dementia from an early diagnosis in terms of symptom control and cognitive stimulation. Though any potential gains are small, these can still be meaningful to the person.
The other side of this, however, is the risk of over-diagnosis and increased public health anxiety associated with such “public awareness” campaigns. For example, our recent review of mild cognitive impairment research suggests people with this diagnosis live with significant uncertainty about the cause of their problems.
These patients often continue to worry about possible dementia, and the infrastructure for supporting them is patchy at best. The ethics of diagnosing people who may have no underlying illness has also been questioned. So yes, we should be helping people with dementia to get the support they need as soon as possible. But this shouldn’t come at the cost of over-diagnosing and over-medicating people.
Everyone knows how bad it feels when the temperature is uncomfortably hot or cold. For most of us it doesn’t last long as we can take simple steps to get comfortable, such as putting on clothes, opening a window, or switching on a heater.
But what happens when you can’t control the temperature where you live? This problem is faced by many residents of aged care facilities, and can be particularly difficult for those living with dementia. To find out how these residents cope we recently carried out a three-year research project on the effects of indoor environment in aged care facilities in south-eastern NSW. This was part of a broader program of University of Wollongong research on the impact of indoor environment on elderly people.
Dementia is a collection of symptoms that affect people’s behaviour, thinking, and their ability to communicate and perform everyday tasks. Sometimes people with dementia can become agitated or distressed, which can be disturbing for other people around them. This often happens for no clear reason.
This is a big issue for the aged care sector since approximately half of all residents in aged care facilities have dementia.
Firstly we set up a network of sensors in six aged care facilities to monitor indoor environmental conditions, such as air temperature, humidity, air velocity and noise.
In collaboration with the care staff of one particular facility we then assessed the frequency and intensity of a range of agitated behaviours exhibited by residents living with dementia over the course of a year.
The most important finding of this study was that the frequency and intensity of agitated behaviours of residents with dementia significantly increased when they were exposed to uncomfortable air temperatures.
A statistically significant correlation was found between rates of agitation of residents and their cumulative exposure to temperatures outside their comfort zone of between 20°C and 26°C.
More generally, the data collected from the hundreds of temperature sensors across all our case study facilities over a one-year period showed that some facilities were often uncomfortably hot or cold (below 19°C in winter and over 30°C in summer) for significant periods.
Poorly designed buildings
This was attributable to many different factors including poor thermal design of the buildings and poor control of the heating and cooling systems. Interestingly, our analysis showed staff were significantly less tolerant of variations in indoor temperature than residents, probably because they were generally more active than the residents (i.e. moving around and working), and therefore had higher metabolic rates. They may have also had higher thermal comfort expectations than the residents.
Regulations can help
The evidence appears to suggest that maintaining a comfortable temperature
will reduce the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia.
There is a clear need for new regulations that ensure aged care facilities provide comfortable indoor environmental conditions, particularly for elderly residents, but also for the staff working in these facilities.
The aged care sector needs good indoor environmental rating tools, built on recent research evidence, to guide the design of their facilities and to audit their operations.
This type of approach has already been successfully applied in the commercial building sector, where mandatory disclosure of the real energy consumption of larger offices, for example, is required of owners wishing to sell or lease their property.
Publicly available ratings of the actual indoor environment provided to aged care residents and staff would alert architects, managers and staff to the importance of thermal comfort and help elderly people, and their families, make a more informed choice as to the best facility in which to live.