In older adults, vascular brain changes and low blood pressure are linked to apathy, say scientists from the Netherlands.

There is “extensive evidence” for a link between blood pressure and cognitive function, the researchers report. Their study investigated whether cerebral small vascular disease, an umbrella term for abnormalities in the brain’s small blood vessels, affects apathy. 

Study participants included 210 elderly adults with mild cognitive decline who took antihypertensive medication. Participants were screened for cerebral small vascular disease using magnetic resonance imaging. Standardized measures were used to determine blood pressure and apathy levels.

Among participants with more cerebral small vascular disease, lower blood pressure was associated with greater apathy symptoms, reported Anne Suzanne Bertens, M.D., and colleagues from Leiden University Medical Center. However, no significant link was found between blood pressure and apathy symptoms in participants with low levels of small vessel brain change.

The takeaway? Adequate blood pressure levels for optimal psychological function may vary in older populations depending on the burden of cerebral small vascular disease, the researchers concluded.

Apathy, a lack of interest or emotion, is a common psychiatric syndrome in the elderly, according to the American Academy of Neurology. It is particularly prevalent in people with dementia. 

The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.