Having trouble managing your money lately? It could be an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, says a new study from Duke University.
As people age, they generally become slower at balancing their checkbooks and counting correct change, even when they’re cognitively healthy. However, trouble with simple financial tasks may be correlated to the amount of protein deposits like beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. This link between Alzheimer’s and money mismanagement is published in the latest issue of The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease.
“There has been a misperception that financial difficulty may occur only in the late stages of dementia, but this can happen early and the changes can be subtle,” said P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, a professor of psychiatry and geriatrics at Duke and senior author of the paper. If your parent or spouse used to be good with money but now struggles, it may be worth getting tested for Alzheimer’s and other dementias, especially if they’re at risk for the disease.
Using financial tests predict Alzheimer’s and other dementias
According to Duke researcher Sierra Tolbert, the study’s lead author, most testing for early dementia and Alzheimer’s disease focuses on memory. These Alzheimer’s tests are unreliable at best, leading to false positives and false negatives.
Tolbert suggests that a financial capacity assessment, such as the 20-minute Financial Capacity Instrument-Short Form used in the Duke study, could also be “a tool for doctors to track a person’s cognitive function over time and is sensitive enough to detect even subtle changes,” she said.
Inability to balance a checkbook is linked to Alzheimer’s biomarkers in the brain
The study looked at 243 adults between the ages of 55 to 90 involved in a longitudinal study called the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. It includes financial skills tests and brain scans that reveal buildup of beta-amyloid plaques.
Participants included cognitively healthy adults as controls, people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and people with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
The financial tests showed that in both men and women, certain money skills declined with age and during the earliest stages of MCI. After controlling for a person’s education and other demographics, the researchers found that the more beta-amyloid plaques in one’s brain — a Hallmark indicator for Alzheimer’s — the worse that person’s ability to understand basic financial concepts or complete simple tasks like balancing a checkbook.
Older adults with MCI are easy targets for fraud
In addition to being a new avenue for testing for dementia, this research points to the need for better financial protection for seniors. “Older adults hold a disproportionate share of wealth in most countries and an estimated $18 trillion in the U.S. alone,” Doraiswamy said. “Given the rise in dementia cases over the coming decades and their vulnerability to financial scams, this is an area of high priority for research.”
Doraiswamy points out that poor financial judgment makes seniors easy fraud targets, which is why early intervention is key to protecting against financial loss and exploitation.