Generosity Could Be an Early Sign of Alzheimer’s

According to the study, those who gave away more money had lower results on tests of cognition known to be sensitive to Alzheimer’s disease.

Seniors’ willingness to give money is associated with the early-stage cognitive indicators of Alzheimer’s disease

Researchers are attempting to identify those who are most vulnerable to financial exploitation in order to help protect older adults. Recent research from the Keck School of Medicine at USC suggests a connection between financial generosity and the early stages of[{” attribute=””>Alzheimer’s disease. These results were recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Han Duke

Duke Han, Ph.D., director of neuropsychology in the Department of Family Medicine. Credit: Ricardo Carrasco III

A laboratory exercise required 67 senior citizens without dementia or cognitive impairment to choose between giving money to an unidentified recipient and keeping it for themselves. Additionally, they participated in various cognitive tests, including word and story recall. On the cognitive tests known to be sensitive to Alzheimer’s disease, those who gave more money did worse.

“Our goal is to understand why some older adults might be more susceptible than others to scam, fraud, or financial exploitation,” said the study’s senior author, Duke Han, Ph.D., director of neuropsychology in the Department of Family Medicine and a professor of family medicine, neurology, psychology and gerontology at the Keck School of Medicine. “Trouble handling money is thought to be one of the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and this finding supports that notion.”

Earlier studies that looked at the relationship between altruism and cognition focused on self-report measures, such as asking older adults whether they would be willing to give money in particular scenarios. In the current study, the relationship was investigated using actual money.

“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,” said Gali H. Weissberger, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and first author of the study.

Giving and cognition

The average age of the 67 adults the researchers enrolled in the trial was 69. In the final analysis, they adjusted for the impacts of age, sex, and education level after gathering information on participant demographics. If a participant had dementia or any kind of cognitive impairment, they were excluded from the research.

Each participant was informed in the lab that they had been matched with an online research participant who would remain anonymous. They were then given $10 and told to split it between themselves and the anonymous individual in $1 increments as they saw fit.

The older participants in the research also underwent a series of neuropsychological exams, including several that are often used to help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages. The tests included story and word recall tasks where participants are asked to remember information after a short delay; a category fluency test that involves listing words on a specific topic; and several other cognitive assessments.

Participants who gave more away scored significantly lower on the neuropsychological tests known to be sensitive to early Alzheimer’s disease. There were no significant performance differences on other neuropsychological tests.

Clarifying the link

More research is needed to confirm the nature of the relationship between financial altruism and cognitive health in older adults, including with larger and more representative samples. Future studies could also collect both behavioral and self-report data on financial altruism to better understand participants’ motivations for giving.

Han, Weissberger, and their colleagues are now collecting data for a longitudinal study using the same giving task. This could help determine whether some older adults are becoming more altruistic over time.

“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 said.

Clarifying these details about the link between altruism and cognition could ultimately improve screening for Alzheimer’s disease and help people protect their loved ones from financial exploitation. It can also help researchers distinguish between what represents healthy giving behavior versus something that could signify underlying problems.

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

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health [RF1AG068166, T32AG000037] and the Elder Justice Foundation.

Reference: “Increased Financial Altruism is Associated with Alzheimer’s Disease Neurocognitive Profile in Older Adults” by Gali H. Weissberger, Anya Samek, Laura Mosqueda, Annie L. Nguyen, Aaron C. Lim, Laura Fenton and S. Duke Han, 13 June 2022 , Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
DOI: 10.3233/JAD-220187

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