If a friend or spouse seems fine but is increasingly having trouble keeping track of their finances, there could be something else going on. Difficulty handling finances could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s, according to recent findings from Duke University Medical Center.

The more prevalent the amyloid plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s, the worse the person’s capability to understand and use basic financial concepts became.

And it could also leave people already experiencing confusion open to financial scams from criminals who prey on the elderly.

The study, published in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, tested the financial skills of 243 adults, aged 55 to 90, and conducted brain scans to monitor the presence of beta-amyloid plaques, which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers found that the more prevalent the amyloid plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s, the worse the person’s capability to understand and use basic financial concepts became, along with the ability to complete simple financial tasks, such as calculating an account balance.

A slippage in these financial abilities, however subtle, could in fact be exactly the type of brain function that opens the biggest pitfalls when affected by Alzheimer’s.

It’s no coincidence that the the range of financial scams looking to prey on vulnerable seniors is greater than ever. Older Americans are already a target for fraud, so anyone suffering from dementia is at even greater risk of being easily confused and misled by a financial scam of some sort.

Further studies could help determine if and how doctors can best diagnose and treat their patients for Alzheimer’s, and perhaps prevent more people from being scammed in the process.

Stuy author P. Murali Doraiswamy, professor of psychiatry and geriatrics at Duke University, in Durham, N.C., told HealthDay.com: “Little is known about which brain circuits underlie the loss of financial skills in dementia. Given the rise in dementia cases over the coming decades and their vulnerability to financial scams, this is an area of high priority for research.”

Doraiswamy added: “The more we can understand adults’ financial decision-making capacity and how that may change with aging, the better we can inform society about those issues.”

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