Most of us have experienced the beginnings of a phone scam: that stern-sounding voicemail alerting you to call the IRS immediately, the confident reassurance about the solution to your back pain, the insistence that your Microsoft computer has been infected with a virus—even if you have an impeccable tax filing record, you don’t have back pain and you own a Mac, not a PC. And most of us simply hang up.
But for some people, it’s easy to fall into the trap of a phone scam. And a new study is suggesting that may be because they are in the early stages of dementia. According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, changes in social judgment and interactions occur long before more noticeable signs of dementia, like memory problems or getting lost in familiar places.
Adults over 65 are often the targets of scams—a minimum of $3 billion each year is illegally obtained from seniors, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Some sources suggest the number is closer to $36 billion.
For this study, researchers from Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago gave a questionnaire measuring scam awareness to 935 people without dementia. They followed the participants for an average of six years, administering neuropsychological tests each year to measure cognition.
The scam awareness exam asked questions like:
- “I answer the telephone whenever it rings, even if I do not know who is calling.”
- “I have difficulty ending a telephone call, even if the caller is a telemarketer, someone I do not know, or someone I did not wish to call me.”
- “If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”
- “Persons older than 65 [years old] are often targeted by con artists.”
- “When telemarketers call me, I usually listen to what they have to say.”
During the study, 151 seniors were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and another 255 with mild cognitive impairment. Those who had low scam awareness were much more likely to have mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.
To further examine how low awareness of fraud might predict memory problems, scientists also autopsied the brains of the 264 patients who died during the course of the study. They were more likely to have the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s within their brains—specifically, beta-amyloid, the protein that accumulates into toxic plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patient.
“This study backs up previous research by showing—unsurprisingly—that people whose thinking and reasoning skills are declining are at higher risk of potential con artists,” said Fiona Carragher, chief policy and research officer at Alzheimer’s Society.
Of course, falling prey to a scam is not a surefire way to predict dementia. But the scientists hope it might be used as a red flag of sorts for people in the early stages of dementia.
“Not everyone in the study who was less aware of scams went on to develop Alzheimer’s, but there was a link. It will be interesting to see if ‘scam awareness’ tests could become one of the tests to predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease earlier,” said Carragher.
The study results point out that more should be done to screen for mild cognitive impairment in older adults. While a person might pass a memory test, that same person might not pass a social judgment test like the one given in this study.
According to the AARP, scams that target seniors are easy to spot once you know what to look for: They typically require you to act fast, they contact you out of the blue with offers of free money or a free vacation and they generally sound too good to be true.