Currently in the U.S., one out of every three seniors suffers from either Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. While over five million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, researchers expect that number to triple in the U.S. by 2050. As Alzheimer’s currently ranks at the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., researchers fear the mortality rates of the disease could skyrocket in the future if the further study cannot help researchers better understand how to care for patients.
Now a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco has taken one step closer to understanding how the disease affects the mind. Individuals who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or early memory or thinking problems have a tendency to mimic the emotions of people around them, according to researchers.
A state referred to as emotional contagion acts as a rough form of empathy, which enables individuals to share and experience the motions of others. This phenomenon allows emotions to travel from one person to another unconsciously, allowing the behavior of one person to shape behaviors and even cause changes in the brain of another. In essence, much of an individual with Alzheimer’s mood can depend on the emotions of those around them. Calm equals calm.
The results of this study were published in the May edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Understanding the Connection
Researchers discovered that during the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and in individuals suffering from mild memory problems, instances of emotional contagion increased.
Researchers suspect that as an individual’s dementia or Alzheimer’s progresses, they become hyperaware of the emotions of others. A direct correlation seems to have emerged that show as a person’s thinking and cognitive abilities decline, their ability to pick up the emotional state of others enhances.
This means that if a patient with Alzheimer’s or advanced dementia receives primary care from an individual or individuals who are angry or anxious, they will begin to pick up and mimic these emotions. Conversely, if a caregiver remains happy and calm, patients will copy these positive emotions as well. Through mimicking the emotional behaviors of another, researchers believe Alzheimer’s patients can connect with others even if they don’t fully understand the social situation in which they participate.
As part of their research, researchers asked study participants to undergo exams designed to identify depression and a variety of other mental health problems and to also undergo an MRI scan that could identify changes in the brain that were related to emotional contagion.
The study involved 237 adult volunteers, 62 of which suffered from mild thinking or memory problems, while 64 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The remaining 111 participants were healthy mentally.
Researchers discovered higher incidences of emotional contagion in study participants who suffered from mild mental impairment and Alzheimer’s disease in comparison to participants who suffered from neither condition.
The study also found that the growth of emotional contagion matched with the increased damage patients had suffered to the right temporal lobe of their brain, which reflected biological changes in the person’s neural system.
The right temporal lobe plays an important role in dictating social and emotional behavior.
So while the results of this study might not provide researchers with a better understanding of how to cure this disease, they at least now understand how to improve the standard of care provided to patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s.