Apathy is a lack of interest in life activities or interactions with others. It can affect your ability to keep a job, maintain relationships, and enjoy life.
Everybody experiences apathy from time to time. You may sometimes feel unmotivated or uninterested in daily tasks. This type of situational apathy is normal.
Yet, apathy can be a symptom of several neurological and psychiatric disorders. It can also be a syndrome. It can become more serious if you have a chronic condition and don’t treat it.
Apathy is a symptom of several psychiatric and neurological disorders, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- persistent depressive disorder (aka dysthymia, a type of chronic mild depression)
- frontotemporal dementia
- Huntington’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- progressive supranuclear palsy
- vascular dementia
A 2011 study found frontal lobe lesions in the brains of people with apathy symptoms. The brain’s apathy center is widely believed to be located in the front of the brain. Apathy may result from a stroke that affects this part of the brain.
A person can also experience apathy without an underlying medical condition.
Teenagers are likely to experience apathy at times. It typically passes with time. Long-term emotional detachment and apathy is not normal in teens, however.
You may feel a lack of passion or motivation if you experience apathy. It can affect your behavior and ability to complete daily activities.
You may have diminished emotions, motivation, and willingness to act. Activities or events that normally interest you may create little to no response.
Apathy may cause disinterest in many aspects of life. You may be indifferent when you meet new people or try new things. You may show no interest in activities or addressing personal issues.
Your facial expressions may not appear to change. You may exhibit a lack of effort, planning, and emotional response. You may also spend more time by yourself.
Continued apathy can affect your ability to maintain personal relationships and perform well at school or work.
Apathy is not the same as depression, although apathy can be a symptom of depression. Depression may also cause feelings of hopelessness and guilt. Serious risks associated with depression include substance use and suicide.
Healthcare providers use 4 criteria to diagnose apathy. People with apathy meet all 4 of the following:
- A decrease in or lack of motivation. A person displays diminished motivation that’s not consistent with age, culture, or health status.
- Behavioral, thinking, or emotional changes. Changes in behavior may make it difficult to engage in conversations or perform daily tasks. Changes in thinking include adisinterest in the news, social events, and deep thinking.
- Effect on quality of life. The changes in behavior negatively affect a person’s professional life and personal relationships.
- Changes in behavior not caused by other conditions. The changes in behavior are unrelated to physical disabilities, substance use, or an affected level of consciousness.
Someone must have these symptoms for 4 weeks or longer to be diagnosed with apathy.
Apathy treatments depend upon the underlying cause. Medications and psychotherapy can help restore your interest in life.
You may also show chronic apathy symptoms if you have a progressive disorder such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Treating the underlying condition can help improve apathy.
If your doctor determines that medication is appropriate, they can prescribe according to the condition causing apathy. There are no medications that are FDA-approved to treat apathy specifically.
Examples of prescription medications include:
- antidementia agents, which treat Alzheimer’s disease, such as donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne), and rivastigmine (Exelon)
- antidepressants, such as paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), and bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban)
- cerebral circulation and metabolism stimulants that treat symptoms of stroke, such as nicergoline (Sermion)
- dopamine stimulants, which treat Parkinson’s disease, such as ropinirole (Requip)
- antipsychotic agents, which are used to treat schizophrenia
- psychostimulants, which are often used to treat apathy with no known underlying cause (examples include methylphenidate (Ritalin), pemoline (Cylert), and amphetamine)
Research continues on other potential treatments for chronic apathy. One possible treatment is cranial electrotherapy stimulation. This approach may help treat apathy after a traumatic brain injury that affects the frontal lobe.
In this treatment, a specialist applies a brief, low-voltage electric current across the forehead to stimulate the brain. The treatment is painless.
Another potential therapy is cognitive stimulation therapy. This approach is used for people with Alzheimer’s. It involves participation in group activities in order to stimulate brain waves. Examples include games or looking at pictures to recognize facial expressions.
A person experiencing apathy may benefit from a supportive network of family or friends. Having support can help you regain interest in your life and surroundings.
Mental health professionals can also help. They can discuss concerns and guide people to reestablish a more positive outlook on life. A combination of therapy and medication may be more effective for apathy than either treatment on its own.