An older adult’s low awareness of scams may be an indicator that he or she may receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment in the future, according to the results of a study published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers in Chicago asked 935 older adults to complete a “scam awareness questionnaire” that asked five questions about behaviors related to openness to sales pitches, interest in potentially risky investments, and awareness of higher scam vulnerability due to older age. None of the older adults had received a dementia diagnosis at that time.

Over an average of six years of follow up, study participants also completed traditional neuropsychologic tests every year. Also, the brains of the 264 participants who died during the course of the study were autopsied to see whether they had any hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Study participants who had low scam awareness at the start of the trial had a higher risk of receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment than did participants with higher scam awareness. Low scam awareness also was associated with more changes of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain at the time of death, based on the autopsy findings.

Evaluating older adults for behaviors such as scam awareness might help identify those at risk for dementia before cognitive symptoms are recognizable, the researchers said.

An older adult who is a victim of fraud may end up unable to pay for long-term care, medications and food, pointed out the author of an accompanying editorial published in the journal. Even though the scam awareness scores used in the study have not been shown to predict who actually falls victim to a scam, the study findings should be a call to action for healthcare systems, the financial services industry and regulators to protect the health and finances of older adults, he said.

The number of reports of financial fraud against older adults has quadrupled since 2013, with 63,500 filed reports describing more than $1.7 billion in actual losses or attempted thefts in 2017, according to a report released in February by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Another report released that month, by the Federal Trade Commission, found that adults aged 80 or more years reported fraud and losses of $79 million in 2018.

IRS impersonation scams were the top complaint made to the Senate Special Committee on Aging’s fraud hotline in 2018 for the fourth consecutive year, according to a committee report released in January.

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