This Subtle Change Could Show Up 6 Years Before a Dementia Diagnosis, Study Says

It's easy to overlook, but it may help you reach an early diagnosis.

Right now, roughly six million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease (AD), a progressive form of dementia that affects memory and other cognitive functions. The sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, it is estimated that Alzheimer's claims the lives of over 125,000 individuals each year.

Though the symptoms of AD can be pronounced later in the course of the disease, they can often go overlooked in its earliest stages. That's why increasingly, experts have begun tracking certain behavioral changes that can help predict whether a diagnosis is imminent. In fact, they say this one change can help point to a dementia diagnosis six years sooner. Read on to find out which red flag may mean it's time for a dementia screening.

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Those with Alzheimer's are more likely to have missed financial payments up to six years before diagnosis.

Cropped shot of a senior woman going through her finances while sitting on the sofa at home

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine analyzed the medical records and consumer credit reports of over 80,000 Medicare beneficiaries and found that those who ultimately went on to develop Alzheimer's were more likely to have financial troubles. Specifically, they more frequently missed at least two financial payments in the six years leading up to their diagnosis than those in similar demographics who did not develop any form of dementia. Additionally, individuals who went on to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's were more likely to have subprime credit two and a half years before their diagnosis.

"We were motivated by anecdotes in which family members discover a relative's dementia through a catastrophic financial event, like a home being seized," Lauren Nicholas, PhD, the lead author and a health economist at the University of Colorado School of Public Health, told The New York Times about the study. "This could be a way to identify patients at risk," she added.

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This may be due to memory problems and changes in risk perception.

A senior man sits in a wheel chair with a concerned look on his face

The researchers attributed their findings to memory deficits and changes in risk perception, which can undermine a patient's ability to process the consequences of their actions.

"It's not uncommon at all for us to hear that one of the first signs that families become aware of is around a person's financial dealings," Beth Kallmyer, MSW, vice president for care and support at the Alzheimer's Association, shared with The New York Times. She added that early in the course of the disease, many people with Alzheimer's experience "executive functioning" deficits, which can affect "planning and problem-solving; judgment; memory; and the ability to understand context."

The pandemic may be worsening patients' financial troubles, experts say.

woman, holding head while sitting on couch, has dementia

While financial woes were associated with dementia long before the pandemic began, experts say that increased social isolation may be compounding the problem. "That financial decision-making safety net may have been weakened," Carole Roan Gresenz, PhD, interim dean at Georgetown University's School of Nursing and Health Studies, told the Times. "We haven't been able to visit, and while technology can provide some help, it's not the same," as in-person financial assistance, she said.

In a study co-authored by Gresenz, researchers found that those with Alzheimer's were 27 percent more likely than others to lose a significant sum of money in their savings accounts, checking accounts, stocks and bonds leading up to diagnosis.

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Financial and other behavioral changes may lead to earlier detection of dementia.

A senior woman speaks to her doctor about her health. She looks at her doctor after she explained to her what she needs to be healthy. The doctor is holding a tablet.

Experts say that before other dementia symptoms strike, these financial changes may be some of the first signals that something is amiss. "Deteriorating financial capabilities are among the earliest signs of cognitive decline," concludes the JAMA Internal Medicine study.

Though there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's, looking out for early signs of dementia and receiving early intervention can significantly alter the course of your illness. Speak with your doctor about an evaluation if you've noticed any surprising financial problems or other significant behavioral changes.

RELATED: 91 Percent of Older Adults With Dementia Have This in Common, Research Says.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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