Younger-onset dementia more challenging than Alzheimers for carers

8 June 2016

7 June 2016

 Higher levels of stress are reported in carers of people with younger-onset dementia compared with Alzheimer’s disease, and now scientists can pinpoint why.

 The results of a neuroimaging study reveal a decrease in grey matter in the ‘social brain’, which is related to loss of empathy, one of the core symptoms of younger-onset dementia, also known as behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD).

 This, understandably, leads to strain in the patient-caregiver relationship.

 Published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the study found that both cognitive empathy and affective empathy decreases in those with younger-onset dementia.

Conversely, people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s retain the capacity for affective empathy. Affective empathy is an automatic drive to respond to other people's emotions appropriately and mainly happens unconsciously. Cognitive empathy is a mainly conscious effort to understand another person's perspective. 

 Lead researcher, Dr Muireann Irish says the findings suggest that social cognitive deficits in Alzheimer’s disease arise largely as a consequence of global cognitive dysfunction, rather than a loss of empathy per se.

 “In contrast, loss of empathy in bvFTD reflects the deterioration of a distributed network of frontoinsular and temporal structures that appear crucial for monitoring and processing social information,” writes Dr Irish and colleagues from Neuroscience Research Australia.

 She says the loss of both cognitive and affective empathy can have a profound impact on the patient-caregiver relationship.

Last Reviewed: 7 June 2016
Reproduced with kind permission from 6minutes.com.au.

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