Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or other memory impairments tend to mirror the emotions of those around them, which is known as emotional contagion.
Think of it this way. When infants see a person smile, they often smile too. Additionally, babies also tend to cry upon hearing other babies cry. This emotional contagion dials back as we get older. But, in those who have some form of cognitive disorder later in life, it comes back.
And emotional contagion grows stronger in those with both the precursor of mild cognitive impairment and full-blown Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2013 research study by the University of California San Francisco's Memory and Aging Center.
The area of the brain known as the amygdala adjusts to nonverbal cues. Mirror neurons, or nerve cells, also play a role enabling people to reflect their emotions. The study also concluded that there appeared to be more of a connection between the degree of emotional contagion and damage to the right side of the medial temporal lobe.
As their own emotional state begins to deteriorate, affected individuals may mimic the emotions of others as a way of coping with their impairment and hiding their condition from others. The study revealed that the emotional sensitivity and “contagion” in Alzheimer’s disease is not only related to distress and mood disorder, but it also develops from specific changes in the structure of the brain that affect emotional reactions.
While these changes limit the person's ability to regulate his or her own emotions, they also may allow for greater emotion sharing and interpersonal connections for those who may otherwise struggle in social interactions.
“In Alzheimer's disease and other dementia-related disorders, we think some people may have an increased sensitivity to other people's emotions," said lead researcher Virginia Sturm, an assistant professor in the UCSF Department of Neurology.
That means that if caregivers are anxious or angry, their patients will pick up and copy these emotions. Likewise, 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."
Though at times challenging and difficult, caregivers can strive to project the emotions they want their loved ones to encounter or see, even though internally they may be having feelings of frustration, anger or sadness.