Could falling prey to financial scams be a sign of dementia in older people?
09/21/2019 // Edsel Cook // Views

To err is human. But if an older person falls for a financial scam, it may be an early warning sign of declining mental powers. And such cognitive decline eventually leads to dementia and even Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's afflicts a third of the population aged 85 or older. The disease is incurable. Existing "treatments" only serve to delay the loss of memory and must be taken as early as possible.

However, most patients retain their ability to remember names and other memories until Alzheimer's disease reaches the late stage. As such, effective treatment relies on spotting the incipient signs of the disease at the soonest.

On a related note, $35 billion annually get stolen from older people in elder fraud cases. Figuring out how many people are vulnerable to falling for financial scams will also help protect senior citizens from criminals.

Con artists consider it easy to target older folk. The typical case is the "grandparents scam," where the criminal gets in touch with their victim, pretends to be a grandchild or other family member, and begs for financial assistance to help cover the expenses of a sudden emergency.

Older people often keep large amounts of cash around the house. They are also often on their own at home and more inclined to answer a phone call, even if they do not recognize the number. (Related: Can essential oils be used to treat certain symptoms of dementia?)

Falling for cons, frauds, and financial scams may be an early sign of cognitive decline

Researchers believe that the trend of con artists targeting older people involves something deeper than gullibility. Eventually, a team from Rush University found that falling for a financial scam might be the first sign of cognitive decline in senior citizens. If left unchecked, the loss of memory may develop into Alzheimer's disease.


The researchers got the idea for their study after learning about the recent spike in incidents of elder fraud.

“Even cognitively intact older people fall prey to pretty hard-to-believe scams,” explained Rush researcher Dr. Patricia Boyle, the author of the paper. “We want to know if this is telling us something about what's going on in the brain, of something that's going awry.”

Their study evaluated the awareness level of 935 older people regarding scams. They followed the mental acuity of the participants over an average of six years.

During the study period, the participants answered questions about their ability to notice that it was too good to be true, their propensity for picking the phone despite not recognizing the number, and if they found it difficult to cut the call short despite suspecting something was up.

Older people are twice as vulnerable to con artists and Alzheimer's disease than previously believed

The Rush researchers uncovered considerable connections between scam awareness and mild cognitive decline, plus the onset of Alzheimer's disease. They noted that older people who remain unaware of the scam face roughly twice the risk of experiencing diminished mental capacity or developing the neurodegenerative disease.

“[Scam awareness] involves multiple functions, cognition and, to some degree, evaluating an offer or situation also involves emotional regulation and social judgement,” warned 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.”

The Rush study warned that older people are much more vulnerable to con artists and Alzheimer's disease than expected. The researchers called for better ways to protect both the mental health and the wealth of senior citizens.

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