Giving away money among older adults could be a sign of Alzheimer’s, according to new American/Israeli experiment

Elderly people given $10 in an Israeli research framework who donated more of it to others tended to show early signs of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who handed over lower sums. As many demented individuals are at risk for financial exploitation, it is important to identify who was at high risk of being abused.


The new research published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, was conducted by Dr. Gali Weissberger, of the interdisciplinary department of social sciences at Bar-Ilan University (BIU) in Ramat Gan (near Tel Aviv) together with principal investigator Prof. Duke Han of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. The study – one of the first to test the relationship using real money – found that those who gave away more money scored significantly lower on cognitive tests known to be a sign on oncoming Alzheimer’s disease than those who gave less.


The study, entitled “Increased financial altruism is associated with Alzheimer’s disease neurocognitive profile in older adults,” examined the relationship between altruism and cognitive functioning in a sample of older adults without dementia, using a behavioral economic measure of financial altruism with real money. 


Participants completed a series of cognitive and behavioral assessments. In the behavioral altruism assessment, they were told that they could send a portion of their $10 study earnings to an anonymous person (Person B). They could send any amount between $0 and $10, and whatever they chose to keep would be added to their study earnings at the conclusion of the assessment. Participants selected one of ten options in $1 increments ranging from $0 to $10. 

The 67 participants had a mean age of  69.21 years, 58.2% of them female and 71.6% non-Hispanic whites.


Those who selected to send $0 to Person B could be considered least altruistic and those who selected to send $10 to Person B could be considered most altruistic. Participants also completed a comprehensive battery of neuropsychological assessments, including tests of memory, executive functioning, language, attention and working memory.


Until now, studies have showed positive relationships between self-reported altruistic behavior and cognition. This study, however, observed the opposite pattern. The researchers found that giving away more money was associated with worse cognitive performances on tests of word-list learning and recall, delayed story recall, and semantic fluency (naming words belonging to a specific category), after accounting for age, education and gender. 


In an additional set of analyses, they divided the sample into three groups based on the amount of money they chose to give away. Those who gave more to Person B than they kept for themselves were in the “Gave More” group. Those who gave less to Person B than they kept for themselves were in the “Gave Less” group. Those who kept $5 and gave away $5 were in the “Gave Equally” group. The researchers found that the group who Gave More consisted of only individuals who gave all $10 to Person B. In general, the Gave More group demonstrated the lowest cognitive performances. 


However, the study’s findings do not imply that people who are devoted, generous and longtime donors to charitable causes are necessarily at risk for dementia. 


“Altruism plays an important role in financial decision making, a function critical for preventing financial exploitation,” said Weissberger/ Additionally, a growing body of literature suggests that declines in financial decision making in older adulthood may be an early sign of adverse cognitive outcomes associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The findings of this study provide insights into how some adults may become vulnerable to financial exploitation in older age,” she added. 


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