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Credit, Financial Problems May Be an Early Indicator of Alzheimer’s Disease

January 6, 2021

Deterioration over time of someone’s abilities to keep their financial situation under control is more frequent in Alzheimer’s patients. Indeed, missed credit card and bill payments, low credit scores and other financial problems may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new report. The study found that adverse financial events often started years before a formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, often before family members became aware of the problem.

About 15 percent of Americans over 70 have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, marked by impairments in memory and thinking skills that often impair the ability to carry out day-to-day financial activities. Erratic bill payments, risky financial decisions and susceptibility to financial fraud and scams are well-recognized signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and they are very real. Problems with thinking and impaired judgement often cause people with Alzheimer’s to continue to manage their finances, even as their ability to do so becomes increasingly difficult as the disease progresses.

It may take several years for family members and doctors to become aware of the inability of someone with Alzheimer’s disease to manage their own finances. In extreme cases, a depleted bank account or a home foreclosure may be a wakeup call for family members that something is terribly wrong. Financial exploitation and fraud affect an estimated 3 percent to 14 percent of older Americans every year, and those with Alzheimer’s are particularly susceptible.

For the current study, researchers looked at records of more than 80,000 men and women on Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly, who lived at home on their own. Living on their own meant they were less likely to have someone to handle their personal finances. The researchers linked medical claims from these single Medicare beneficiaries with their credit reports from 1999 to 2018, noting missed credit card payments and low credit scores.

The researchers found that single seniors who had been given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease were more likely to have credit problems than their peers who did not have dementia. They were more likely to have missed credit payments up to six years before their Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and to be given a subprime credit score up to two-and-a-half years prior to diagnosis.

Financial problems persisted, and were more prevalent, in the months following an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the researchers found, accounting for up to 20 percent of all the missed payments and lower credit scores overall. Financial problems were particularly prevalent among those with early Alzheimer’s who did not have a college degree, costing families hundreds to thousands of dollars more in increased interest payments and late payment fees.

The researchers then looked at financial problems among people who had medical problems other than Alzheimer’s, such as glaucoma (a leading cause of blindness), to evaluate if these financials problems were more generally associated with a disease state. Importantly, the financial problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease were unique compared to those associated with other medical problems.

“These findings highlight the important adverse financial consequences of cognitive decline and impairment,” the authors concluded. “Even without effective medical treatments, earlier detection of cognitive impairment might help protect older adults and their families from adverse financial outcomes. Families should be counseled about the potential need to help with financial management following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.”

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Lauren Hersch Nicholas, PhD, MPP; Kenneth M. Langa, MD, PhD; Julie P. W. Bynum, MD, MPH; Joanne W. Hsu, PhD: “Financial Presentation of Alzheimer Disease and Related Dementias.” JAMA Internal Medicine, Nov. 30, 2020

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