Is Apathy a Disease?

Here is the abstract of a Harvard University study titled “Age-Related Changes in Simulation of Future Events” published in the January 2008 issue of Psychological Science:

Episodic memory enables individuals to recollect past events as well as imagine possible future scenarios. Although the episodic specificity of past events declines as people grow older, it is unknown whether the same is true for future events. In an adapted version of the Autobiographical Interview, young and older participants generated past and future events. Transcriptions were segmented into distinct details that were classified as either internal (episodic) or external. Older adults generated fewer internal details than younger adults for past events, a result replicating previous findings; more important, we show that this deficit extends to future events. Furthermore, the number of internal details and the number of external details both showed correlations between past and future events. Finally, the number of internal details generated by older adults correlated with their relational memory abilities, a finding consistent with the constructive-episodic-simulation hypothesis, which holds that simulation of future episodes requires a system that can flexibly recombine details from past events into novel scenarios.

I wish I had access to the whole study, but I don’t.

Still, unless I’m interpreting the abstract and this article wrong, it seem like the damage caused to memory functions by aging could make it harder for us to project ourselves into the future and generate possible scenarios for ourselves.

We all know that aging can be a terrible thing because of all the aging-related diseases that it brings (some people are working on that problem), but if on top of that it reduces our ability to think ourselves into the future, it will diminish our ability to care about it.

Maybe the movie cliché with the old guy telling the young one about how he “used to have dreams, used to think constantly about the future, but not anymore” isn’t just a cynical line but also a biological condition. Apathy is a disease? I don’t want to read too much into the Havard study, but this could explain many things.

One more reason – as if we needed more – to do our best to find ways to repair the damage of aging.

4 Responses to “Is Apathy a Disease?”

  1. Chris McLaughlin Says:

    Michael, did you consider that it might be appropriate for people very late in life to stop projecting themselves into the future? That might be a very different thing from apathy.

    One of the gifts of aging may be learning to live in the moment.

    Another may be thinking about our children and grandchildren–others–in the future, concentrating on benefits to them, not ourselves.

  2. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    I’m not saying it can’t have benefits in some specific cases, but overall, anything that affects our memory and our capability to project and care for the future is bad.

    It’s not a binary thing; it’s not because we can think about the future that we’re bad at being in the present and caring for others. Losing something doesn’t necessarily mean gaining something else.

  3. Chris McLaughlin Says:

    Without forcing a prolonged discussion, let me try once again.

    You are assuming that time is not only linear but one-directional, I think.

    So let’s say you and I both have the same continuum of about 88 years, with a starting point and an ending point. Your marker right now is. . . where? Somewhere under 30, say, and most of your life stretches out ahead of you. The territory for future dreaming (and that’s not the only kind you can have, btw) is 58 years.

    I’m 58. So I have 30 years to dream and think about.

    My mom, who’s 87, has one. Does it make sense for her to devote herself to that one year ahead–and that one by all signs not so pleasant, or does it make sense for her to reimagine the vast territory behind her?

    Some researchers who work with people with Alzheimer’s disease are working with imagination as a way to connect. But it doesn’t need a future in which to range. There’s the past and present to invent and reinvent.

    I care about the future very much, but less for what it will be for me than what it will be for others. My mom thinks of it mainly in terms of how much longer she will see the ones she loves–before she gets to see, as she believes, the ones who wait for her.


  4. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    Interesting, Chris. Good points.

    I think what you’re saying is two things, and that we might actually agree — we’re just not talking about the same thing.

    I agree with you that older people probably have less to look forward to, but that is because of the diseases of aging (including memory problems, but also other pathologies that end up killing you). That is the result of the problem, not something that is good in itself, or impossible to change (we already have vastly longer lifespans than humans have had for most of history – ancient Egyptians lived to about 20-30).

    If your body wasn’t failing, it wouldn’t matter how long you have lived before. You would want to be able to project back and forth as well as use your memory functions to their maximum potential, which is why it’s important to figure out how to repair the damage that accumulates in our brains as we also figure out ways to repair other things.

    I don’t believe that life is an hourglass and that we have a certain amount of sand that will run out. We’re hitting a ceiling because we currently live to ages that are in evolution’s blind spot; post-reproductive ages don’t get the benefit of natural selection. Our body is very good at maintaining itself in a robust state as long as we are within that reproducing period. We just need to figure out how to keep ourselves in that state indefinitely by fixing the damage periodically before it leads to pathologies (google: ted aubrey de grey).

    The second thing you are saying is that it might make more sense for someone who’s closer to death to “reimagine the vast territory behind her”. But the study that I’m quoting says that the memory problems affect both future and past projections, so older people are getting robbed of their memories. In fact, we’ll all get Alzheimer’s disease if something else doesn’t kill us first – beta amyloid fibrils are accumulating in all our brains, it just needs to pass a certain threshold to become a pathology and it happens faster in certain people than others. A good reason to join folding@home.

    In want to change that with all my heart. It’s the best way to reduce suffering on this planet (aging kills hundreds of thousands each day), and it is why I’ve been reading molecular biology and biochemistry stuff, as well as donating to aging research at the Methuselah Foundation.

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