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What is apathy?

Apathy is a lack of interest in life activities and/or interacting with others. It can affect your ability to keep a job, maintain personal relationships, and enjoy life.

Everybody experiences apathy from time to time. You may occasionally feel unmotivated or uninterested in daily tasks. This type of situational apathy is normal. Apathy becomes more dangerous if you have a chronic condition and are unmotivated to treat it.

Apathy is a symptom of a number of neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease. It also can be a syndrome in and of itself.

What causes apathy?

Apathy is a symptom of a number of psychiatric and neurological disorders. Examples include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • dysthymia or chronic mild depression
  • frontotemporal dementia
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • progressive supranuclear palsy
  • schizophrenia
  • stroke
  • vascular dementia

A person can also experience apathy without an underlying medical condition.

Researchers of a 2011 study found lesions in the frontal lobe of the brain in patients 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.

Teenagers are likely to experience periods of apathy. It typically passes with time. Long-term emotional detachment and apathy is not normal in teens.

What are the symptoms of apathy?

You may feel a lack of passion or motivation if you are experiencing apathy. It can affect your behavior and your ability to complete daily activities. The main symptom of apathy is a lack of motivation to do, complete, or accomplish anything. You may also experience low energy levels.

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 you to express 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 in addressing personal problems or concerns. 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. It can be a symptom of depression along with disinterest. Depression may also cause feelings of hopelessness and guilt. Serious risks associated with depression include substance abuse and suicide.

How is apathy diagnosed?

Healthcare practitioners use four criteria to diagnose apathy. People with apathy meet all four:

  • A decrease in or lack of motivation: A patient displays diminished motivation that is 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 a disinterest 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 abuse, or an affected level of consciousness.

Patients must have these symptoms for four weeks or longer.

How is apathy treated?

Apathy treatments depend upon the underlying cause. Medications and psychotherapy can help restore your interest in life. You may show chronic apathy symptoms if you have a progressive disorder such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.


If your doctor determines that medication is appropriate, they will prescribe according to the condition that is causing apathy.

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)

Home care

You may benefit from a supportive network of family and/or friends. They can help you regain interest in your life and surroundings.

Mental health professionals can also help. They can discuss concerns and also guide people to re-establish a more positive outlook on life. A combination of therapy and medication may be more effective for apathy than either treatment on its own.

Future treatments

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. 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 Alzheimer’s patients. It involves participation in group activities in order to stimulate brain waves. Examples include games or looking at pictures to recognize facial expressions. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: Rachel Nall
Medically reviewed on: Nov 01, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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