If you are like most Americans, you’ve honed your ability to smell out a scam over the past few years. But not all older people have perfected these techniques. Falling for scams may be an early sign of cognitive impairment.
Older Adults Falling for Scams:
Con artists frequently prey on older people with dementia because they are easy marks. New research shows that inability to detect the signs of a scam can be an early sign of cognitive impairment (Annals of Internal Medicine, online April 15, 2019).
The researchers followed 935 older adults in and around Chicago for six years. The volunteers lived in their own homes and none had been diagnosed with dementia at the outset. At that time, they answered questions to reveal scam awareness.
Every year thereafter, they took neuropsychological tests to reveal cognitive impairment. About 16 percent of the participants developed Alzheimer disease and 34 percent had mild cognitive impairment. Those who had shown they were susceptible to falling for scams were 56 percent more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer disease. In addition, people with low scam awareness were 47 percent more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment.
Unfortunately, the measure of scam awareness the investigators used “is too weak for prediction at the individual level.” Consequently, this correlation isn’t perfect. A person who is fairly confused may still be suspicious of a scam. Sometimes an older person who appears to be doing well cognitively will become a victim. Overall, however, those who had trouble determining who is trustworthy were more likely to undergo mental deterioration.
Other Risk Factors for Cognitive Decline:
Over the years, scientists have uncovered a number of factors that could make people more vulnerable to cognitive impairment. Recently investigators reported a link between gum disease and the onset of dementia. In addition, Dr. Ruth Itzhaki of the University of Manchester has conducted decades of research on infection with herpes simplex 1 (cold sores). This viral infection may contribute to the risk for Alzheimer disease. People who have a genetic susceptibility for this condition (APOe-E4) may be the only ones who need to worry about the link, however.
Patients taking several anticholinergic drugs such as amitriptyline for depression or oxybutynin for overactive bladder are also at higher risk for dementia. Nonprescription diphenhydramine found in PM-type pain relievers has high anticholinergic activity. As a result, it too could contribute to cognitive difficulties. Older people who take benzodiazepines for insomnia or anxiety are also at risk. To learn more about medications that may harm memory, you might wish to read our Guide to Drugs and Older People.