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.

Should doctors be screening older patients based on their charitable habits?

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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  1. I totally disagree with this article. I have always wanted to share with others, and especially those less fortunate than I. I’m sure my 4 adult children don’t always agree, especially if I want to slip a couple of dollars to someone begging on the streets. I am blessed to have enough to get along, and why shouldn’t I share a bit of it if my heart tells me to. And when the dollar(s) leave my hand, I no longer consider them to be mine. So what the recipient does with them is of no concern to me – he can buy a loaf of bread or a pint of wine for all I know.

    1. I’ve been obsessed with giving since 1982. I’m now 73 years old and still obsessed with giving I was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize twice for giving and there’s a David rail day in Arkansas and President Reagan wants bragged about me in a speech this is all individual giving. I started writing companies to give me things to give away and it worked out very well it’s snowballed into something huge even though these things were all mine I gave them away I still get things to give away but not my own money Ronald Reagan much what’s bragged about me you can find that on YouTube Ronald Reagan’s address on volunteerism you can look me up under David Rayl Nobel Peace prize nomineeDecember 27th 1987

  2. My husband donates to any and all that ask. Our mailbox is overflowing every day with more and more solicitations. Most of these charities I have never heard of and their literature is mainly sick kids, animals, starving old women or every Indian tribe in the US. I’ve asked him to pick 2-3 local charities to support but that doesn’t seem to matter.

  3. That picture of Anthony Fraudi is him counting his money from lining up Big Pharma with the ultimate payday. It’s certainly not a pic of him preparing to give it away!

  4. I agree with this research, older people are more susceptible to financial scams and miracle cures. It’s precicisly why they are targeted by criminals much more often. Billions of dollars are given up by them voluntarily, while being offered eternal salvation in another world and to save some poor pets… Meanwhile there are legitimate charitable causes that go unfunded and overlooked by millions like starving children and homelessness. So, yes charity is good but it matters what kind!

  5. It could possibly be that people who are beginning to experience cognitive decline are well aware if that fact…and its NOT the altruism which us a factor…but rather reaching an age where you have created multiple generations of younger people who may NEED this money more than we.
    After all…as the saying goes…you can’t take it with you.

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