Vulnerability to fraud could be among the early warning signs of dementia in older adults, according to a new study published in Annals of Internal Medicine, which found that older adults with low scam awareness had about twice as much risk of developing mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease as their less-susceptible peers.
To examine the link between scam susceptibility and cognitive impairment, researchers from the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago assigned 935 cognitively healthy older adults a scam awareness score based on statements like “I answer the telephone whenever it rings, even if I don't know who's calling” and “If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”
The researchers then followed up for an average of six years to test participants’ cognitive function. They found that older adults who scored highly on the initial scam susceptibility questionnaire — meaning they were the most vulnerable to exploitation — were about twice as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease as those with low scores.
For participants who died over the course of the study, autopsy data showed that those with high scam susceptibility scores also had more of the brain changes associated with Alzheimer's disease.
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"What these findings suggest,” says neuropsychologist and lead study author Patricia Boyle, “is that changes in scam susceptibility or aspects of social judgment may be among the very earliest signs that Alzheimer's disease is beginning, and may be present even well before we can see overt cognitive signs.
Boyle says that working to develop clinical screening tools that assess a broad spectrum of behavior — such as scam susceptibility — and not just memory loss could better help identify individuals at risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, which affects an estimated 5.8 million adults in the United States and is projected to affect to nearly 14 million by 2050.
Beyond dementia, Boyle also hopes her findings illuminate the scope and toll of elder fraud, which results in billions of dollars of losses per year and has been linked to depression and social isolation among those affected.
"Victimization and vulnerability should be considered red flags that someone is struggling and may need more careful monitoring,” she says. “It's not just people with overt cognitive problems. Even cognitively healthy people may need education and resources to help them learn what not to do."