You’re notified of a big win on the lottery. Swept away by an internet romance. Excited to receive a phone call from a grandchild whose voice doesn’t sound quite right – and who urgently needs money.

These represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fraudulent schemes devised by con artists to relieve people of their savings. Elderly people are the main target for these scams, losing an estimated — and quite staggering — $36.48 billion in 2015 alone.

Are certain people suckers for this type of con? Perhaps the health of their brains will give us a clue. . .

How Good is Your “Scam Awareness”?

Researchers from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago wanted to find out whether “low scam awareness” in older people points to a higher risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or even early Alzheimer’s.

To test the idea, they recruited 935 people, most of them in their 70s and 80s, who were free of dementia when the study began.

Each was asked to fill out a short questionnaire designed to test these risk-linked traits:

  • Answering the phone even when the number is not recognized
  • Listening to telemarketers
  • Finding it hard to end unsolicited calls
  • Having no awareness that seniors are targeted for financial exploitation
  • Being open to potentially risky investments

Participants were given a scam score based on their responses and also undertook detailed cognitive assessments and clinical evaluations.

The questionnaire and tests were repeated annually for six years. Autopsies were performed on a subset of 264 recruits who died during this period, with the aim of determining brain levels of beta amyloid plaques and tau tangles that are believed to be linked to Alzheimer’s.

After six years, 152 developed dementia and 255 were diagnosed with MCI.

The findings were that low scam awareness was associated with an increased risk of MCI and Alzheimer’s.

Social Judgment is Also Important

Every one-unit increase in the scam score (indicating lower awareness) was linked to a whopping 60% increase in dementia risk. Low scam awareness was also associated with a 47% higher risk for MCI. Among those who died, low awareness was also tied to higher brain pathology as shown in the autopsies.

The authors concluded, “Low scam awareness among older persons is a harbinger of adverse cognitive outcomes and is associated with Alzheimer’s disease pathology in the brain.”

The findings suggest changes in a person’s social judgment — including the ability to detect deceit — may be among the earliest signs of impending dementia.

According to Dr. Patricia Boyle, professor of behavioral sciences at Rush and the study’s lead author, “Decreased scam awareness may be a very early sign of Alzheimer’s disease — one that emerges well before cognitive symptoms are recognizable.

“Assessment of scam susceptibility may help identify individuals at greatest risk of developing cognitive impairment and who may benefit most from therapeutic intervention.”

Dr. Boyle emphasized that the small number of questions used in the study were not developed for use in a clinical setting, but she believes scam awareness holds promise as an early diagnostic tool.

Other Experts Agree

Dr. Jason Karlawish, co-director of Penn Memory Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, agrees that such symptoms are meaningful. “Changes in the ability to judge other people’s emotions and social cues,” he said, “may signal a person is at risk of cognitive decline.”

Beth Kallmyer from the Alzheimer’s Association also thinks this is a valuable study because “changes in judgment, financial ability or decision-making are often the first symptoms that family members notice. Too often these are denied or dismissed, when they may actually be a reason to get a thorough medical examination.”