Higher financial generosity linked to lower cognition and may be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease

Older adults’ willingness to give away money is associated with decreased cognitive function, according to an NIA-funded study published in the journal Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. These results suggest that an increase in this behavior, known as financial altruism, could be related to the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The study was led by a team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego; University of Southern California; Rush University Medical Center; and Bar-Ilan University (Israel).

Seniors make many important decisions about their finances, including budgeting for retirement income, using savings, and transferring wealth and assets. Additionally, research has shown a relationship between older age and increased altruistic behaviors, such as charitable giving. While deliberate generosity is not a negative trait, the findings suggest that increased altruistic behaviors may be associated with decreased cognitive function in some contexts. Problems with money management and financial decision making can also be among the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, older adults are more likely to be susceptible to financial abuse, scams, and fraud than younger or middle-aged adults.

Previous research on financial altruism and cognitive function has relied on self-report measures, such as answering questions involving hypothetical money-giving scenarios. In contrast, the present study investigated this relationship using real money and on-the-ground decision making. The research included 67 participants aged 50 and older (average age 69) without a previous diagnosis of dementia or cognitive impairment. Altruism was measured through a test developed by the researchers called the altruism choice paradigm.

Participants were paired with another person, known as Person B, who was anonymously participating in the study online. Each participant was told that she would receive $10 for being part of the study; however, they could send a portion of that money to Person B. Participants were asked to choose any dollar increment from $0 to $10 to give to Person B. Their choice was recorded on a scale of least altruistic ($0) to more altruistic ($10). The participants then completed various cognitive tests that assessed memory, language and recall.

The results showed that higher altruism was associated with lower performance on these cognitive tests in functional areas that show early changes in Alzheimer’s disease. This information could help family members and caregivers protect older adults from the risks of financial mismanagement and financial abuse, scams, and fraud. Physicians can also use this knowledge to improve their screening for Alzheimer’s disease by seeking greater financial generosity from their patients.

However, it is important to note that the research participants did not have cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s and did not report changes or declines in cognitive function. Other limitations of the study include that the participants were predominantly white and had high levels of education. While the findings add to previous research suggesting that problems managing finances may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, more studies, such as longitudinal studies with larger, more representative samples, are needed to confirm the association between financial altruism and disease.

This research was supported in part by grants NIA T32AG000037 and R01AG063954.

These activities are related to ISA 9.H AD+ADRD Research Implementation Milestone“Launch research programs to develop and validate sensitive neuropsychological and behavioral assessment measures to detect and track the earliest clinical manifestations of AD and AD-related dementias.”

Reference:

Weissberger GH, et al. Increased financial altruism is associated with the neurocognitive profile of Alzheimer’s disease in older adults. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2022;88(3):995-1005. doi: 10.3233/JAD-220187.

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