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How Seniors Respond to Phone Scams Could Indicate Their Alzheimer's Risk

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Chances are you’ve noticed how many spam calls or “robocalls” you’ve been getting lately. While those calls are notoriously annoying, there might be a lesson to be learned from them. A new study found that how seniors respond to these calls may indicate their risk for dementia or mild cognitive impairment.

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on Tuesday, looked at 935 older adults recruited from the Chicago area, who had not been diagnosed with dementia, over a period of about six years. Researchers measured their “scam awareness” via a questionnaire with five statements:

  1. “I answer the telephone whenever it rings, even if I do not know who is calling.”
  2. “I have difficulty ending a telephone call, even if the caller is a telemarketer, someone I do not know, or someone I did not wish to call me.”
  3. “If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”
  4. “Persons older than 65 [years old] are often targeted by con artists.”
  5. “When telemarketers call me, I usually listen to what they have to say.”

Annual neuropsychological testing measured whether they had mild cognitive impairment (MCI) (since people with MCI are at increased risk of developing dementia) or Alzheimer dementia.

During the course of the study, 151 participants were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and 255 were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Researchers found that low “scam awareness” was associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer dementia — in fact, each 1-unit increase in scam score (indicating a lower awareness) was associated with about a 60% increase in dementia risk. Low scam awareness was also associated with an increased risk of mild cognitive impairment. Results persisted even after adjusting for overall cognitive function.

Researchers also performed brain autopsies on 264 participants who died during the course of the study and found that low scam awareness was associated with more buildup of the plaques that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

Lead author Patricia Boyle told CNN that more and more research shows that symptoms of poor social cognition, like making bad financial decisions, may occur before more obvious cognitive symptoms like memory loss.

“Social cognition — social judgment — involves a diverse array of functions… [this] complicated behavior involves and integrates multiple different abilities, including cognition, including emotion regulation, including making inferences and perceptions about others’ behavior as well as of course regulating one’s own impulses,” Boyle said.

While this research doesn’t prove that there is a definitive cause-and-effect between responding to phone scams and dementia, Boyle urged people to watch out for new types of scams and help safeguard their loved ones against fraudulent charges, as well as make sure they are screened early for cognitive impairment.

If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, check out these articles for guidance and support:

Getty photo by grinvalds

Originally published: April 16, 2019
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