Apathy: Looking at the Mind of the Parkinson’s Patient

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The latest finding in regards to Parkinson’s research might not seem like a big deal, but it does point to some essential diagnostic and treatment information. Out of Florida — home to a huge contingent of senior citizens — the study looked at a condition that strikes many older people, Parkinson’s disease, and how it relates to depression and/or apathy.

 Just to refresh your memory, here’s a short overview of the condition. Parkinson’s is a progressive disease where nerve cells in a part of the brain start to die off or become damaged. This causes a cascade effect that ends up bringing on symptoms such as tremors, extremely slow movement, stiffness, difficulty walking or making other movements, and problems balancing. These typically become worse over time. One out of every 100 people over 60 years old develops this debilitating disease (although it’s also been known to strike younger folks).

 In the study, researchers looked at 80 people with Parkinson’s and 20 people with “dystonia,” another neurological disorder that causes involuntary muscle contractions, which can force a person’s body into painful positions. When it came to psychological symptoms, both groups reported experiencing depression at approximately the same rate.

 However, 51% of the Parkinson’s patients displayed indications of apathy, versus only 20% of the patients suffering from dystonia. Apathy on its own — without any depression symptoms — was seen in 29% of the Parkinson’s subjects, but in none of the people from the dystonia group.

 Now, you might ask, why does this matter? First off, apathy can be confused for depression, as the two emotional disorders have some similarities. Actually, apathy frequently accompanies depression, which causes further confusion (on the other hand, many people view apathy as a symptom of depression, not a separate disorder). This can lead to the wrong diagnosis, which can mean that a person is not treated in the optimum way. The signs of apathy are a sense of indifference, lethargy, loss of interest in your surroundings, activities, and loved ones, and lack of motivation and enthusiasm. In addition to these possible symptoms, depression can also manifest as sadness, memory loss, feelings of worthlessness, problems sleeping, appetite changes, and an inability to concentrate.

 It’s important that medical professionals recognize the distinction when it comes to Parkinson’s rather than just labeling all of these as signs of depression. As the study shows, apathy can occur on its own in Parkinson’s patients and needs to be treated as such. Therapies for depression might not necessarily help people with apathetic symptoms only. Properly recognizing apathy can also help in the diagnostic process.

 It’s also essential that people taking care of loved ones afflicted with this neurological disorder know that apathy seems to be a major feature of Parkinson’s. Knowing this could help a caregiver cope with a spouse or family member who just doesn’t seem to care about anything anymore and could remove the stigma of laziness from something that is actually a psychological disorder.