Getting scammed might be an early indicator that an older person is starting to have cognitive declines, a new study suggests.
About a third of people 85 or older have Alzheimer’s disease. There is no cure and treatments to help slow down memory loss only work if a patient starts taking them early.
But most people don’t begin to lose their ability to recall things like names until the disease has progressed substantially.
Finding early cues could be crucial to diagnosing and treating Alzheimer’s disease as soon as possible.
Plus, the study authors from Rush University in Chicago note, elder fraud leads to the loss of $35 billion a year, so knowing how many people may be at risk for such scams may help us better protect at-risk senior citizens.
Older Americans that fall for phone scams may be at a two-fold risk of Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment, a new study suggests
Elderly people have long been considered easy targets for cons and frauds.
Perhaps the classic example is the so-called grandparents scam, in which con artists contact elderly people and impersonate the grandchildren or other family members, asking for financial assistance to help cover the costs of a car crash or similar emergency.
Older populations tend to have more readily accessible cash and are seen as alone, and thus more likely to pick a phone cal, even if it’s from an unfamiliar number.
But scientists have long suspected that something much more sinister than simply targeting ‘gullible’ older people is going on when it comes to scamming.
And the new study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, demonstrates that vulnerability to cons may be an early symptom of cognitive declines, and ‘harbinger’ of Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists at Rush University had been hearing a growing number of reports of elder fraud in recent years.
‘Even cognitively intact older people fall prey to pretty hard-to-believe scams,’ lead study author Dr Patricia Boyle told Daily Mail Online.
‘We want to know if this is telling us something about what’s going on in the brain, of something that’s going awry.’
The researchers assessed how ‘scam aware’ 935 older Americans were, then continued to track their mental acuity for an average of six years.
They asked questions to gauge if the participants knew when something was ‘too good to be true,’ if they answered the phone even when it was an unfamiliar number, and if they had a hard time hanging up the phone.
Over the course of the following years, the participants cognition was assessed with standard neuropsychiatric tests. Of the original participants, 264 died, and their brain’s were autopsied for signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
Significant links between scam awareness and both mild cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease development became clear to the researchers when they compared the resulting data.
Altogether, they found that those who were not scam aware were at about double the risk of either cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s disease.
‘[Scam awareness] involves multiple functions, cognition and, to some degree, evaluating an offer or situation also involves emotional regulation and social judgement’ explained Dr Boyle.
‘Social judgement is a complex behavior that’s probably supported by diverse networks, and therefore [this function] may be at a vulnerability to early brain changes…which suggests that Alzheimer’s disease and associated change affects broader changes…than memory loss – it’s much more complex.’
By the time that memory loss shows up, Alzheimer’s disease has already wreaked significant havoc on the brain.
So paying attention to more subtle indicators – like scam vulnerability – might help researchers identify at-risk patients far earlier and protect them in more than one way.
The new research suggests that far more older people might be vulnerable to both con artists and Alzheimer’s disease than previously thought, Dr Boyle said.
‘We need to put in measures to protect the wealth as well as the health of our older adults,’ she added.