FILE – In this file photo of May 19, 2015, a doctor refers to PET scan results that are part of an Alzheimer's disease study at a Washington hospital. Scientists know that long before Alzheimer's memory problems become clear, people experience more subtle changes in their thinking and judgment.
WASHINGTON – Is it difficult for an older friend or family member to hang up telemarketers? Or are you enthusiastic about the voicemail "You have won a prize?" New research suggests that seniors who are not wary of scams can also run the risk of eventually developing Alzheimer's disease.
Elder fraud is a major problem, and Monday's study does not mean that people who fall prey to a scammer have some sort of dementia.
But scientists know that long before Alzheimer's memory problems become clear, people experience more subtle changes in their thinking and judgment. Neuropsychologist Patricia Boyle of the Alzheimer's Disease Center at Rush University wondered if one of the warning signs could be the kind of assessment errors that make someone susceptible to scams.
"When a scammer approaches an older person, they are looking for a social vulnerability – someone who is open to a conversation with a complete stranger," Boyle said. Then the older person has to interpret the intentions and emotions of that stranger, with little else to go on, to decide whether they believe what they are challenging, she explained.
Boyle turned to data from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which operates a fraud risk meter, to determine behaviors that could signal scam vulnerabilities – things like answering the phone if you don't recognize the number, listening to telemarketers, finding It is difficult to end unsolicited calls, to be open to potentially risky investments and not to realize that senior citizens are often confronted with financial exploitation.
Boyle studied 935 seniors, mostly in the 70s and 80s, with no known brain problems participating in a long-term memory and age project in Chicago. They took a questionnaire about the scam and then did brain tests for an average of six years.
During the study, 151 seniors were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and another 255 with mild cognitive impairment, sometimes a precursor to Alzheimer's disease. Participants who had had what Boyle called low scam consciousness at the start of the study were more likely to have developed each of these conditions than seniors who were more aware of scam sensitivity.
For a closer look, the 264 participants who died during the study underwent hersecopsis. Certainly, the lower the scam consciousness at the start of the study, the more people had an accumulation of sticky plaque in their brains, which is a characteristic of Alzheimer's, Boyle reported in Annals of Internal Medicine.
The study cannot demonstrate a link between low scam consciousness and imminent decline in thinking and memory, warned Dr. Jason Karlawish of the University of Pennsylvania in an accompanying editorial.
Karlawish described one of his own patients who confessed to a grandson, "I think I am" by a lottery scam that convinced him to pay taxes in advance so that he could receive his claimed winnings. It was just too hard to hang up with the polite caller. Three years later, that patient shows no sign of cognitive impairment, said Karlawish, who said he was falsified by how the smart scammers were able to rob the man.
However, the study results should be "a call to action for health care systems, financial services and their regulators," Karlawish wrote, urging further research into what he & # 39; remarkable findings & # 39; called.
The possible scam link is not surprising, said the vice-president of the Alzheimer's Association, Beth Kallmyer, who also said more research is needed. She even said that seniors may be reluctant to report fraud because family members fear they have been sucked up due to health problems.
Dementia problems or not, she simply advises seniors not to answer unsolicited calls or emails from people they don't recognize, making it harder to target them.
Previous research has suggested that seniors may have trouble managing their finances, even with the normal cognitive retardation of aging.
And the increase in elderly fraud is so high that investment firms now have to ask customers for the contact details of a "trusted person" that they can alert if they suspect a case of financial exploitation. Last week, federal agents broke out a Medicare scam that sold unnecessary orthopedic braces to hundreds of thousands of seniors. And every tax season, the government warns people not to fall for phone calls from IRS cheaters – that agency won't ask for payment.
"As older people start making mistakes in financial, healthcare, and other types of complex decisions, we need to raise awareness and start asking:" Do they need help? & # 39; & # 39 ;, said Boyle. " does not necessarily mean that someone will continue to develop dementia. But we must become more aware. "
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