illustration of Lois Bowers

As scientists and physicians work to improve the lives of those living with dementia now and in the future, new research contributes to the list of signs and symptoms that we can look for in friends and family members as well as residents and prospective residents.

Outside of an individual’s physical and mental health, his or her financial health may yield clues if we are paying close attention.

“Most memory disorders aren’t diagnosed until symptoms are severe, yet, given the progressive nature of disease, cognitive decline usually starts many years prior,” Carole Roan Gresenz, PhD, a professor in Georgetown’s School of Health and McCourt School of Public Policy, said in a statement. “The earliest changes in cognition might not be noticeable by family members and friends but may be quietly compromising financial decision-making.”

Gresenz was the lead researcher for a study released Friday by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “Our findings substantiate the possible utility of credit reporting data for facilitating early identification of those at risk for memory disorders,” she said.

For the research detailed in “The Financial Consequences of Undiagnosed Memory Disorders,” Gresenz collaborated with a Georgetown neurologist and Federal Reserve researchers. They looked at the effect of undiagnosed memory disorders on credit outcomes using nationally representative credit reporting data merged with Medicare data from which identifying information had been removed. Credit cards and mortgages are the primary components of debt among those aged 70 or more years, they explained.

The study found that in the years before an individual receives an Alzheimer’s disease or other memory disorder diagnosis, his or her credit scores begin to weaken and payment delinquency begins to increase. The findings showed consistent deterioration in those financial outcomes over the quarters leading up to diagnosis being made. They also showed that credit card and mortgage delinquencies, specifically, both increase “substantially” before the diagnosis.

According to Gresenz, increased credit card delinquency was noticeable more than five years before a dementia diagnosis, whereas mortgage delinquency was seen three years before it.

“The results are striking in their clarity and consistency,” she added. “The financial decline we observe mirrors the cognitive decline that these individuals are experiencing: credit scores consistently decline, quarter by quarter, and probability of delinquency consistently increases as diagnosis approaches.”

The new work builds on some of her previous research, published in 2019 in the journal Health Economics, which used survey data on approximately 10,000 households. It showed that before an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, a person in the early stages of the disease faces a heightened risk of adverse financial outcomes, a likely consequence of compromised decision-making when managing money as well as financial exploitation by others.

Such compromised decision-making and adverse financial effects could put someone at risk of not being able to afford or obtain needed long-term care in the future.

The research was supported by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health.

Lois A. Bowers is the editor of McKnight’s Senior Living. Read her other columns here. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at Lois_Bowers.