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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press A doctor points to PET scan results that are part of a 2015 study on Alzheimer's disease. A recent study unveiled a link between Alzheimer's disease and people vulnerable to scams.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019 1:00 am

Low scam awareness linked to Alzheimer's

LAURAN NEERGAARD | Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Does an older friend or relative have a hard time hanging up on telemarketers? Or get excited about a “You've won a prize” voicemail? New research suggests seniors who aren't on guard against scams also might be at risk for eventually developing Alzheimer's disease.

Elder fraud is a huge problem, and Monday's study doesn't mean that people who fall prey to a con artist have some sort of dementia brewing.

But scientists know that long before the memory problems of Alzheimer's become obvious, people experience more subtle changes in their thinking and judgment. Neuropsychologist Patricia Boyle of Rush University's Alzheimer's disease center wondered if one of the warning signs might be the type of judgment missteps that can leave someone susceptible to scams.

“When a con artist approaches an older person, they're looking for a social vulnerability – someone who is open to having a conversation with a complete stranger,” Boyle said.

Boyle studied 935 seniors, mostly in their 70s and 80s, with no known brain problems who were enrolled in a long-running memory and aging project in Chicago. They took a scam awareness questionnaire and then took yearly brain tests for an average of six years.

During the study, 151 seniors were diagnosed with Alzheimer's and another 255 with mild cognitive impairment, sometimes a precursor for Alzheimer's. Those who'd had what Boyle calls low scam awareness at the study's start were more likely to have developed each of those conditions than seniors who were more aware of scam vulnerability.

The 264 who died during the study underwent brain autopsies. Sure enough, the lower the scam awareness at the study's start, the more people had a buildup of sticky plaque in their brains that is a hallmark of Alzheimer's, Boyle reported in Annals of Internal Medicine.