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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

Alzheimer's Patients May Mimic Emotions

Findings may have implications for caregivers
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WebMD News from HealthDay

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, May 28 (HealthDay News) -- People with Alzheimer's disease or early thinking and memory problems tend to mirror the emotions of those around them, researchers find.

This transfer of emotions, known as emotional contagion, appears heightened in people with Alzheimer's and related mental decline, according to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) team. And it can be important in the management of these patients, they added.

"Calm begets calm," said Dr. Sam Gandy, associate director of the Mount Sinai Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in New York City, who was not involved in the study.

Emotional contagion is a rudimentary form of empathy, enabling people to share and experience other people's emotions, said lead researcher Virginia Sturm, an assistant professor in the UCSF department of neurology.

"It's a way by which emotions travel across people quickly and even without awareness," explained Sturm. This process can shape behaviors and cause changes in the brain, she added.

In the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and in people with mild thinking and memory problems, emotional contagion increases, the researchers found. It is even more apparent in people with dementia, they noted.

"In Alzheimer's disease and other dementia we think some people may have an increased sensitivity to other people's emotions," Sturm said.

"As their memory and thinking abilities decline, it seems this is accompanied by the enhancement of other emotional processes," she said.

This means that if caregivers are anxious or angry, their patients will pick up and copy these emotions.

On the other hand, if the caregiver is calm and happy, patients will emulate these positive emotions, Sturm said.

"This is a way Alzheimer's patients connect with others, even though they don't have an understanding of the social situation," she said. "In order to manage patients, it might be that the caregivers being calm and happy would go a long way in keeping their patient calm and happy."

Alzheimer's disease is an age-related brain disorder that begins slowly and gradually robs people of their ability to lead their everyday lives. In the United States, one-third of the nation's seniors die with Alzheimer's or another type of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

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