Falling for telephone scams could be an early sign of dementia

The United States Department of Justice says that annually around $3 billion is defrauded from seniors. Many of these tricksters use the telephone for their scams. What would not dupe a person with normal mental faculties often takes in seniors. A new study shows that elderly with mild cognitive impairment or early signs of dementia often fall prey to these telephone scams.

Image Credit: SpeedKingz / Shutterstock
Image Credit: SpeedKingz / Shutterstock

The study reveals that old people with no apparent signs of dementia who fail to protect themselves from these phone scamsters by ending the conversation and hanging up may have early signs of dementia. In some cases failing to use good judgement could be an early sign of Alzhiemer’s disease say the researchers. The results of the new study titled, “Scam Awareness Related to Incident Alzheimer Dementia and Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Prospective Cohort Study,” were published in the latest issue of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Lead author of the study, Patricial Boyle, neurological psychologist at Rush University's Alzheimer's Disease Center, said this study adds “to our understanding of elder fraud in general. This work would suggest that, in fact, many cognitively intact older people also may be at risk of financial and other forms of fraud and abuse and really sheds new light on the scope of this problem.” She explained that memory loss is usually preceded by poor decision making.

The team of researchers recruited 935 older people living in and around Chicago. They had never been diagnosed with dementia and had no apparent symptoms of dementia. At the start of the study the participants were given a questionnaire on scam awareness.

It contained five statements;

  • I answer the telephone whenever it rings, even if I do not know who is calling.
  • 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.
  • If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
  • Persons older than 65 [years old] are often targeted by con artists.
  • When telemarketers call me, I usually listen to what they have to say.

Following this, the participants were asked to complete traditional neuropsychological tests each year for around six years. During the study 255 (or 34.2 percent) developed mild cognitive impairment and 151 participants (or 16.1 percent) developed Alzheimer’s disease. During the study 264 participants died of natural and other causes. Their brains were donated for autopsy and research. Signs of dementia and Alzhiemer’s were noted in their brains.

Results revealed that participants who had low scam awareness at the start of the study were at a greater risk of Alzheimer's, dementia or mild cognitive impairment. Similarly those that scored low on the fraud awareness test also had signs of Alzheimer’s in their brains on autopsy. Typically beta amyloid plaque was found in their brains.

Boyle said, “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.” “Because it's a complex behavior, it likely involves distributed brain networks to support it,” Boyle explained.

Boyle added that families need to be “vigilant about the problem of elder fraud,” recommending the sites of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and AARP for guidance.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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