Being scammed foretells Alzheimer’s onset

Older people may be at greater risk of being scammed by con artists than their appearance or behaviour suggest.

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Loss of ability to detect a scam may presage the onset of dementia, researchers suggest. Credit: solidcolours/Getty Images

New research shows that changes in social judgment occur before changes in thinking or memory are recognisable, making it difficult for family and friends to watch for danger signs.

Low scam awareness in old age may also be an early sign of cognitive decline and dementia, according to the findings of a prospective cohort study, published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers from Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Centre in Chicago, US, asked 935 older people who were free from dementia to complete a questionnaire to ascertain a “scam awareness” score. 

Over an average of six years of follow up, participants completed traditional neuropsychological tests every year. Brain autopsies were carried out on the 264 participants who died, to look for the hallmarks of Alzheimer disease.

The researchers found that low scam awareness was a harbinger of adverse cognitive outcomes and associated with Alzheimer disease pathology in the brain.

“We conceptualise scam awareness as a component of decision making and a complex behaviour that requires a variety of social cognitive abilities, including recognition that others may have intentions and desires that differ from one’s own, perception of the personality traits of others, and regulation of behaviour even in highly pressurised situations,” they write.

The paper notes that while elder fraud is widely believed to be limited to people with overt cognitive syndromes, recent data suggest that many people who seem to be cognitively intact also fall prey to scams.

As such, the new findings “may have important implications for older persons’ vulnerability to financial fraud and other forms of exploitation”.

“Among our study participants, 76% reported that they answer the telephone whenever it rings even if they do not know who is calling, 24% reported that they listen to telemarketers, and 11% reported difficulty ending an unsolicited or unwanted communication with a telemarketer.

“We acknowledge that responses to the measure used here are not validated indicators of victimisation, but such behaviours indicate a willingness to engage in behaviours associated with victimisation.”

In an unrelated but worryingly relevant paper in the same journal, researchers from the University of Washington, US, report that older adults may not consider age-related risk factors when making decisions about how to store their guns.

Nearly a quarter of the more than 4400 people surveyed stored their guns unlocked and loaded, regardless of memory loss or suicide risk. 

Among the group, the prevalence of diagnosed depression and frequent mental distress was 17.4% and 6.9%, respectively. Memory loss in the previous year was reported by 12.2% and 5.6% reported discussing their memory loss with a clinician.

The researchers note that 91% of firearm deaths among older adults in the US in 2017 were self-inflicted.

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