This very common issue could be an early sign of dementia

As citizens of developed nations continue to live longer and longer, dementia cases will begin to appear more frequently.

One in 14 Americans over the age of 65 will experience cognitive decline, and nearly one in six will endure the same at some point in their eighties. Despite the prevalence of the disease, there is a lot we still don’t know about its pathology. 

Advanced stages of dementia typically follow a series of muted symptoms patients might mistake for less serious conditions, like stress or sleep deprivation. In fact, according to a new study conducted by researchers from Duke University, many of us evidence one of the premiere red flags associated with the illness almost every day.

“There has been a misperception that financial difficulty may occur only in the late stages of dementia, but this can happen early, and the changes can be subtle,” explained senior author P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, a professor of psychiatry and geriatrics at Duke University, in a media release.

The new paper, published in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, examines the cross-sectional relationship between dementia and financial management skills in the elderly. The strength of the report’s findings highlights how limited the diagnostic scope has been up until very recently.

The preclinical and prodromal predictors of Alzheimer’s disease

The researchers began with a longitudinal study of 243 adults between the ages 55 and 90 from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. 

The study pool contained a heterogeneous mix of cognitively healthy adults, adults with mild memory impairment and adults who had been previously diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease before recruitment.

After coupling financial literacy tests with brain scans that measured levels of protein buildup of beta-amyloid plaque, the researchers were able to establish a punitive correlation between the two.

On balance, even healthy adults showcased a drop in financial skills as they age, but after controlling for relevant variables the data yielded a direct relationship between increased amyloid plaques (a common predictor of degenerative disease) and a decreased ability to comprehend basic financial concepts, successfully calculated values and effectively balance an account. 

“Using a multicenter study sample, we document that financial capacity is impaired in the prodromal and mild stages of AD and that such impairments are, in part, associated with the extent of cortical β-amyloid deposition. In normal aging, β-amyloid deposition is associated with slowing of financial tasks. These data confirm and extend prior research highlighting the utility of financial capacity assessments in at-risk samples,” the authors wrote in the report.

These outcomes were consistent among male and female participants.

As covered in a previously published Ladders article, the protein-plaque buildup is a biological inevitability that is not in and of itself instructive of onset cognitive decline. This rule also applies to many of the symptoms mentioned above. Any and each warrant concern when genetics and severity are applied.

Plaque buildup in adults who go on to develop dementia occurs aggressively, as do the pathological substrates associated with it. The problem is diagnosis is more often than not informed by reduced memory capability—an important feature of cognitive illness but by no means the only reliable one.

“Older adults hold a disproportionate share of wealth in most countries and an estimated $18 trillion in the U.S. alone,” Doraiswamy continues. “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.”