Altruism in older adults could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease

LOS ANGELES — Could altruism be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease? A new study has found a link between older adults who are more willing to give away money and cognitive decline.

A team from the Keck School of Medicine at USC discovered that even seniors with no signs of dementia perform noticeably worse on cognitive tests if they gave more money to an anonymous person during a lab experiment. Researchers believe their findings could explain the apparent connection between older adults falling for financial scams and cognitive impairment later in life.

“Our goal is to understand why some older adults might be more susceptible than others to scam, fraud or financial exploitation,” says study senior author Duke Han, PhD, the director of neuropsychology in the Department of Family Medicine, in a university release. “Trouble handling money is thought to be one of the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and this finding supports that notion.”

Although prior studies have tried to examine this potential link between altruism or generosity and brain health, the new report went a step further by using real money in the experiment.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to explore the relationship using a behavioral economics paradigm, meaning a scenario where participants had to make decisions about giving or keeping actual money,” adds Gali H. Weissberger, PhD, a senior lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

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Study authors gathered 67 adults who had an average age of 69. None of them had any signs of dementia or cognitive impairment at the start of the experiment. The team also collected information on each person’s age, gender, and overall level of education during the study.

During the experiment, researchers paired each senior with an anonymous person, participating in the study online. The seniors also received $10 that they could distribute between themselves and their online partner.

At the same time, the seniors also completed a series of neuropsychological tests, including some that help doctors test for the early stages of dementia. These included story and word recall tests, a category fluency test that has participants list words tied to a specific topic, and several cognitive assessments.

Results show older participants who gave more of the $10 to their anonymous partner scored significantly lower on the neuropsychological tests which scan for Alzheimer’s disease.

The team says larger and more representative samples are necessary to confirm their findings. Moreover, researchers want to collect more data on the behavior and self-reported accounts from the people who give more to others. This may help researchers better understand an older person’s motivations to give more.

“If a person is experiencing some kind of change in their altruistic behavior, that might indicate that changes are also happening in the brain,” Weissberger says.

Study authors add that clearing up this link between altruism and cognition could also lead to a new screening method for people at risk for dementia.

“The last thing we would want is for people to think that financial altruism among older adults is a bad thing,” Han concludes. “It can certainly be a deliberate and positive use of a person’s money.”

The study is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

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