Cognitive decline and social isolation common reasons for elderly financial abuse | Alzheimer's Prevention Registry

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November 20, 2019

Cognitive decline and social isolation common reasons for elderly financial abuse

By Alzheimer's Prevention Bulletin


We’ve all heard the stories about older adults being scammed out of their life savings. Perhaps they were coerced to sign over real estate or a bank account. Or their signature was forged on financial documents by a person they know, possibly even a family member. Unfortunately, this type of financial abuse happens more often than we know.

The National Center for Elder Abuse (NCEA) defines financial exploitation as the illegal or improper use of an elder’s funds, property or assets. According to their Deputy Director, Julie Schoen, “One in 10 people over the age of 65 are subject to some type of abuse, with financial abuse and neglect being the two most common.”

Researchers are now studying why older adults are more vulnerable to financial abuse. “The reduction in memory and thinking skills and social isolation are two reasons people over the age of 65 are more susceptible to financial fraud,” says Duke Han, PhD, Director of Neuropsychology in Family Medicine and associate professor of family medicine, neurology, psychology and gerontology at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of California.

“The Decision-Making Substudy led by Dr. Patricia Boyle, a large longitudinal study at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, identified a link between susceptibility to scam or fraud and Alzheimer’s disease,” explains Dr. Han.  “In related work we found that the areas of the brain first impacted by the disease are the same areas associated with scam susceptibility. More research is needed, but we believe vulnerability to financial abuse may be one of the earliest signs of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s before other symptoms are visible.”

Dr. Han is now leading a study at the University of Southern California to evaluate adults 50 and older who have been victims of financial exploitation and have no symptoms of cognitive impairment. His goal is to identify why people may be victims in order to prevent future financial abuse. Los Angeles residents who are interested can learn more about the Finance, Cognition and Health in Elders Study (FINCHES).

Both Dr. Han and NCEA’s Schoen believe there are certain factors that increase a person’s potential for being exploited. These include:

  • Cognitive decline – As we age, we expect to see declines in executive function, processing speed and memory. Activities such as managing finances are often impacted first since they require more complex thinking.
  • Social isolation – Older adults often spend more time alone. This may make them hungrier for social contact and thus more vulnerable.
  • Medications – Certain drugs and the interactions between them, along with overall declines in health, can reduce the ability to think and reason clearly.
  • Dependency – As older adults become more dependent on caregivers and family members, they open themselves up to financial fraud. It is a sad reality that many fraud cases are actually perpetrated by family members and caregivers.
  • More frequent targets – Older adults are targeted more often because of their concentration of wealth and their potential for memory and thinking problems.

However, elder abuse is a problem with solutions.  As family members, friends and caregivers, there are actions we can take to protect ourselves and our loved ones from financial fraud.  Below are some suggestions from the experts:

  • Maintain healthy thinking skills for as long as possible. Exercise regularly, spend time with friends and family, and eat a healthy diet.
  • Increase your financial literacy. Understanding more about the financial world before you have problems will improve your ability to make important decisions.
  • Check in frequently with your older loved ones and encourage others to do so too. With several people on alert you are more likely to notice issues. Ask if they are taking their medications and how they are feeling. Warn them of the latest scams you’ve heard about.
  • If the person’s caregiver will not let you speak to them, be concerned.  Go visit or send someone to visit if you live out of town. Caregivers who are exploiting someone often separate them from their loved ones.

Learn more about ways to prevent financial abuse through AARP’s BankSafe program. AARP trains bank employees to recognize abuse and provides consumers with information on the latest scams and ways to safeguard their finances.