MONDAY, April 15, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- When older adults fall prey to scam artists, it might in some cases be an early warning of Alzheimer's disease, a new study suggests.
The study of 935 older adults found that those who appeared susceptible to scams were at higher risk of mental decline over the next six years. Compared with their more skeptical peers, they were 47% more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment -- problems with memory and thinking that can progress to dementia.
And they were typically twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.
Researchers said it all suggests that "low scam awareness" can be a harbinger of dementia. That's important, in part, because financial fraudsters go after the elderly.
"Older adults hold most of the wealth in this country," said Patricia Boyle, lead researcher on the study. "We know they are often the target of scam artists, and they're vulnerable to falling victim -- to the tune of about $35 billion a year."
If an older adult falls for a scam, that alone does not mean they're on a path toward dementia, said Boyle, a neuropsychologist with the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago.
But it might raise a red flag for families, she said, if it's part of a pattern of behavior. Is your older relative always answering the phone, even when the number is unknown? Are they willing to talk to "anyone"? Or quick to give a stranger personal information?
The study, published April 16 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, did not look at actual instances of victimization.
Instead, Boyle's team used a questionnaire to gauge participants' vulnerability to being swindled. It asked about their openness to sales pitches, whether they had difficulty ending phone calls from strangers, and their interest in potentially risky investments, for example.
All participants were dementia-free at the outset. Over the next six years, 16% developed Alzheimer's. It turned out that the risk was higher among people who had seemed vulnerable to scams six years earlier.
For each unit increase in "scam score" -- indicating greater vulnerability -- there was a 60% increase in Alzheimer's risk. The typical person with a high scam score was more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's than the typical person with a low score, according to Boyle's team.
Dr. Jason Karlawish, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, wrote an editorial published with the study. He said the findings offer insight into the beginnings of dementia.
"It's true that one of the earliest signs is trouble with memory," Karlawish said. But, he added, Alzheimer's is not only a memory disorder -- it's a brain disease.
"This study suggests that changes in social cognition can be some of the earliest signs," he said.
Social cognition refers to how we perceive and act on information about other people and social situations.
Protecting yourself from a scam, Karlawish said, involves interpreting the words and intentions of someone else, making a decision about whether to trust that person, and then being able to respond -- by the ending the phone call, for example.
In the editorial, Karlawish tells the story of an elderly patient who lost most of his wealth to a lottery scam. The perpetrators called several times, getting the man to pay "fees" and "taxes" on the money he had supposedly won. They cheated him, in part, by being friendly, including asking him what he planned to do with his "winnings."
Crooks have all kinds of ways to trap the elderly, according to AARP. They may pose as agents of the IRS or Medicare, as debt collectors, or even as a target's own grandchild. In that scam, they call -- often late at night -- pretending to be a grandchild in an emergency who needs money wired.
Karlawish has talked to older patients about some of the common scams, and said it would be wise for families to do the same.
Boyle agreed. "We need to educate older adults to be on the lookout for unscrupulous actors," she said. "We can talk about basic steps like not answering the phone when you don't know who's calling."
But ultimately, she and Karlawish said, broader responses are needed.
The financial services industry recently adopted a rule that investment firms must keep contact information for a "trusted person," in case a client's transactions raise concerns that they are impaired or being exploited.
But more needs to be done, Karlawish said. Older adults who are swindled, he noted, may be unable to pay for medications, long-term care or even food.
"This is a public health issue," Karlawish said, "and we need to treat it that way."
AARP has advice on preventing money scams and fraud.