Why There is a Lack of Empathy in People with Dementia

A new study may bring comfort to caregivers who are watching their loved ones undergo the personality changes that can come with a dementia diagnosis.Why There is a Lack of Empathy in People with Dementia

Learn more about this study that has linked actual changes in the brain to a lack of cognitive empathy in some people with a certain form of dementia.

Impaired Cognitive Empathy in People with Dementia

Researchers from Neuroscience Research Australia recently conducted a new study that evaluated the level of cognitive empathy in people with Alzheimer’s. The study included people with the disease, healthy people and people with the behavioral-variant of frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD). It has been noted that people with bvFTD undergo a startling change in personality marked by a lack of empathy and dulled emotions, meeting attempts at affection with confusion.

Researchers found that both the group with Alzheimer’s and the group with bvFTD had a reduced level of empathy, but that the participants with bvFTD were significantly more impaired when it came to identifying with the emotions and experiences of others. Researchers believe that the lack of empathy felt by the people with the disease was more related to their cognitive decline than actual impairment in empathy.

Researchers also noted that among the participants with bvFTD, the impaired level of empathy was directly correlated to fading grey matter in the area of brain responsible for social functioning.

New Findings Can Bring Renewed Comfort to Caregivers

The study was recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and may bring comfort to caregivers who have seen a lack of empathy first hand in their loved ones as their dementia progresses.

Lead author of the study, Muireann Irish, says that this study explains why people with Alzheimer’s can be socially appropriate as the disease progresses. She said,

“There isn’t the change in personality, which I think is one of the most jarring things about frontotemporal dementia patients. [This study] gives more knowledge and insight to the caregivers that there’s an organic reason for this change that becomes so distressing. Empathy is an abstract concept in a way. It’s not as easily quantified as memory loss or changes in language and it can be seen as a personality issue or somebody being deliberately unsympathetic, but this shows there’s a region in the brain that changes.”

Have you seen behavioral changes in your loved one with Alzheimer’s or other people with dementia that you care for? How have you found comfort and peace through the progression of the disease? Share your story with us in the comments below.

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Please leave your thoughts and comments

  • Mary

    I think this is a “given”. BUT I would like to know if people with very little empathy in their younger years are more likely in the future to be diagnosed with Dementia. Is there a connection in the two?

  • Kristene Thompson

    I just came off my caregiving journey of taking care of mom who had FTD. She had the non affluent asphasia variant. I came to the conclusion towards the end of her disease that I was not buying the loss of empathy claim. It is my believe, at least in regards to my mom, that it was not that she lost empathy but she lost the ability to express it or show it but I think inside she still felt it. I decided this the night I asked her if she was congested. Mom was nonverbal but could communicate with me by picking yes or no from a piece of paper or from a list. So I asked her and instead of picking yes or no as her answer she took her pencil and pointed it and touched it on my chest. This was very odd for her to do .Then I realized she did this because in fact I was congested and getting over a cold. She pointed to my chest as a way to show her concern for me. Because of FTD she had no way on her own to acknowledge her concern until I provided a window for her by asking if she was congested. I found this to often be the case. She was completely unable to start or do anything but she was completely aware of all she ever was. If I had said to her mom I am sick she would have understood me but would have shown no sign of caring. There were also times that I might have a migraine. Mom knew how those were for me. On those days that I needed to lay down and nurse my migraine mom would sit quietly and contently and need less and not pace or be into things. She was letting me get better. If she did not feel any empathy she would have been like most other days and be up and down and into things and needing and wanting something every few minutes. So I am not buying that the loss empathy just that they loose ability to show it or express it.

    • Chris She Dev

      In some yes you are right. Mum had FTDP-17 and she told me she felt love but could not show it. Dad has FTD (Behavioural) and has no feelings for anyone.

      • Kristene Thompson

        That is a good point. So sorry you had to deal with this with both your parents. How horrible. Good point in regards to the different variants.

  • Cathryn Record-Horn

    My husband has had severe frontal temporal damage and atrophy for many years. Since a tbi three years ago the empathy is non existent. Everything is about him and he feels nothing for others. It is horrible to watch because family is in pain and he is rude to them. It’s worse than not caring. I don’t now how to explain it other than you are loosing a support system and watching your love one decline, they just don’t care.

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