Financial habits maybe as important as a brain scan to identify Alzheimer's
WASHINGTON (ABC7) —
Your financial habits may be just as important as a brain scan when it comes to diagnosing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Look no further than anyone who’s been diagnosed with a form of dementia, and their families will tell you the signs were there. They just didn’t know what to look for.
“We would get notifications from different credit card companies and they would say ‘You haven't paid.’ There would be late fees,” Peggy Misciagna said, as I sat with her and her husband, Tom in their Virginia home. “I used to say to him, ‘There’s plenty of money in the account, why is this bill not being paid?’ And he never could answer."
Two full years before Tom Misciagna was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, he was showing subtle symptoms that something was wrong.
“He would pay bills and send them to the wrong place. He'd double or triple pay something that shouldn't have been paid," said Peggy.
Tom quickly admits he didn’t realize anything was amiss. “Not really, at first,” said Tom. “I thought I was doing everything very good.”
What the 30-year veteran of the CIA and his wife didn't know at the time, was that changes in how you handle money
can reveal clues to Alzheimer's, sometimes years before traditional clinical symptoms appear.
“There's something about financial transactions that are so sensitive to difficulties with thinking, concentrating, paying attention, learning new information that often they're the first things when you look back, where the signs were there before the repetitive questions, the repetitious stories, the burned dinner, etc," said Dr. Jason Karlawish.
Karlawish is considered one of the nation’s leading Alzheimer’s researchers. He’s a Professor of Medicine, Medical Ethics and Health Policy and Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania and is the Co-Director of the Penn Memory Center.
He identified financial habits as tools for early diagnosis when new patients continued to land in his office after making a series of devastating financial errors.
"There's no reason why these errors have to be discovered by walking into a room full of fire and smoke. There should be far better alarms set-up, and even ways to predict people who might catch fire, if you will,” said Karlawish.
Which is why he is lending his expertise to the financial industry, and entrepreneurs, working to systematically identify nuanced financial changes before devastating consequences occur.
"In some sense,” said Karlawish, “the banking and financial services industries are on the front line of screening for cognitive decline in America."
Enter Howard Tischler and his business partner, former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Liz Loewy. The team created software, now being used by major financial institutions, to track and alert customers and their trusted advocate to subtle financial changes in behavior.
"I saw how many cases fell through the cracks and I just thought so much more could be done in the way of monitoring,” said Loewy.
After three decades as a prosecutor, often overseeing as many as 800 cases of elder fraud and abuse a year, Loewy decided she wanted to help protect the assets of the aging, before cognitive decline made them vulnerable to scammers and bad decisions.
“We alert for things that I saw happen on my cases like the opening of a new account which might be an unauthorized account, or for a missing deposit, like a social security check,” said Loewy.
Alerts that could have prevented co-founder Howard Tischler's mother from losing everything she had.
“I started EverSafe because my mother was financially exploited and she lost her lifetime of savings," said Tischler.
Tischler says neither he, nor his siblings, suspected anything was wrong with their mother until they saw her bank account and went through her bills.
She'd stopped paying her long-term care insurance to afford an expensive auto club membership.
She was legally blind and didn't own a car.
“It's like an illness where they talk about early detection. Same thing, you want to find out about this as early as possible because a lot of it starts small and it's a downward spiral which will eventually take all of a person's money," said Tischler.
Something even the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Patrick Harker, in a recent speech to the financial industry, acknowledged as critical to protecting the solvency of America's seniors.
“It makes sense, it makes a lot of sense, to address this issue, these problems, early on," said Harker.
Dr Karlawish says programs like EverSafe and the participation of the financial community are as important as brain scans in identifying Alzheimer’s and protecting patients.
“So like it or not, America's financial services industry is arm-in-arm with me, the Co-Director of the Penn Memory Center, diagnosing and identifying older adults with cognitive problems," said Karlawish.
In fact, Karlawish has coined the phrase “Whealthcare” to normalize thinking about health and wealth as having a symbiotic relationship.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, families can use all the help they can get. They say every 65-seconds someone gets the disease, and it can often take years - sometimes more than a decade, before traditional symptoms are noticed.