Early-Alzheimer's patients flunk financial study


There is no doubt that if we had payed closer attention to my mother's finances she would have been diagnosed sooner. Early diagnosis is a critical variable in slowing the progression of Alzheimer's.

People who are in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease show rapid declines in their ability to manage their financial affairs, a study reports this month.

Early-Alzheimer's patients flunk financial study

By Kathleen Fackelmann, USA TODAY

People who are in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease show rapid declines in their ability to manage their financial affairs, a study reports this month.

An estimated 5 million people in the USA have Alzheimer's, a degenerative brain disease that ultimately causes severe confusion and memory loss. In the early stages of the disease, they symptoms are mild. Yet the new study suggests that even at this stage, patients may have trouble with basic money matters, such as paying bills or counting change.

The findings suggest that patients, even those who have mild symptoms such as some foggy thinking, should act right away to get their finances in order.

"The longer you wait, the more impaired you become," says Stephen McConnell, senior vice president of the Alzheimer's Association. The study is one of the first to document the steep decline in patients' ability to handle money matters, he says.

Daniel Marson, director of the University of Alabama-Birmingham's Alzheimer's Disease Center, and his team recruited 55 people who had early-stage Alzheimer's and compared them with 63 healthy seniors. The team gave the recruits a series of basic financial tasks such as writing out a check or reading a bank statement.

They found that compared with healthy seniors, patients with mild symptoms of the disease scored poorly on 16 out of 18 such tasks right at the study's start. The team tested the seniors after a year and found that Alzheimer's patients showed a substantial decline in overall financial capacity and made lots of mistakes when they performed specific tasks, including filling out checks and preparing a bill to go out in the mail.

Alzheimer's patients also were increasingly taken in by fraud schemes, Marson says. Most of the healthy seniors had no trouble identifying a letter outlining a scam as suspicious. Many of the Alzheimer's patients were duped or swayed by the letter, Marson says.

He says fraud schemes by phone or mail often target the elderly, and older people with confusion are a prime target.

"Patients lose the ability to size up the situation," Marson says. "And before you know it, they've made a sizable donation." The research is published in the March issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Early-stage Alzheimer's patients still have the ability to make decisions about how they want their affairs handled, McConnell says. They should visit a lawyer while they are healthy enough to consider setting up some protections such as a durable power of attorney, he says. A durable power of attorney allows a designated family member to step in and make decisions when the disease has worsened.