If someone you know is struggling to keep track of their finances as they age, early dementia might be the culprit.
That's the conclusion of researchers who tested 243 adults, aged 55 to 90, on their financial skills and performed brain scans to assess the build-up of beta-amyloid plaques, which are associated with Alzheimer's disease.
Some of the participants had no mental decline, some had mild memory impairment and some had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Specific financial skills declined with age and at the earliest stages of mild memory impairment, with similar declines in men and women, the study authors said.
"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 senior study author P. Murali Doraiswamy. He is a professor of psychiatry and geriatrics at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina.
After accounting for education levels and other factors, the researchers found that the more extensive the amyloid plaques were, the worse a person's ability to understand and use basic financial concepts or to complete financial tasks, such as calculating an account balance.
"The more we can understand adults' financial decision-making capacity and how that may change with ageing, the better we can inform society about those issues," Doraiswamy said in a Duke news release.
"Older adults hold a disproportionate share of wealth in most countries and an estimated $18 trillion in the US alone," Doraiswamy noted.
Financial capacity test
"Little is known about which brain circuits underlie the loss of financial skills in dementia. 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 added.
Most testing for early dementia and Alzheimer's disease focuses on memory, explained study author Sierra Tolbert, a Duke researcher.
A financial capacity test, such as the 20-minute one used in this study, could help doctors track a person's mental function over time, Tolbert suggested.
"Doctors could consider proactively counselling their patients using this scale, but it's not widely in use," Tolbert said in the news release.
"If someone's scores are declining, that could be a warning sign. We're hoping with this research more doctors will become aware there are tools that can measure subtle changes over time and possibly help patients and families protect their loved ones and their finances," Tolbert added.
The study was published online recently in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease.
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