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Clues to Alzheimer’s in how you handle your finances

Photo: Sinclair Broadcast Group

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) - Your financial habits may be just as important as a brain scan when it comes to diagnosing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“We would get notifications from different credit card companies, and they would say you haven't paid. There would be late fees. Peggy Miscianga said. "I used to say to him, there would be plenty of money in the account, why is this bill not being paid, and he never could answer."

Two full years before Thom Miscianga 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,” his wife Peggy said. “He'd double or triple pay something that shouldn't have been paid."

But Thom said he felt like he was doing well.

What the 30 year veteran of the CIA and his wife didn’t know a the time was that changes in how you handle money could reveal clues to Alzheimer’s. Sometimes those signs can turn up 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," said Dr. Jason Karlawish an Alzheimer's researcher.

Karlawish 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,” Karlawish said. “There should be far better alarms set-up, and even ways to predict people who might catch fire if you will.”

Karlawish is lending his expertise to the financial industry and entrepreneurs by working to systematically identify nuanced financial changes before devastating consequences occur.

"In some sense, the banking and financial services industries are on the front line of screening for cognitive decline in America," Karlawish said.

Howard Tischler and his business partner, former Manhattan assistant district attorney Liz Loewy, created software now being used by major financial institutions to track and alert customers.

“I saw how many cases fell through the cracks, and I just thought so much more could be done in the way of monitoring," Loewy said.

After three decades as a prosecutor and often overseeing as many as 800 cases of elder fraud and abuse a year, Loewy 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,” Loewy said.

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," Tischler said.

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 also legally blind and didn't own a car.

"It's like an illness where they talk about early detection,” Tischler said. “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."

Federal Reserve Chairman of Philadelphia Patrick Harker said in a recent speech to the financial industry acknowledged it was critical to protect the solvency of America’s seniors.

"It makes sense, it makes a lot of sense, to address this issue, these problems, early on," Harker remarked.

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," Karlawish said.

According to the "Alzheimer’s Association," every 65-seconds someone gets the disease - and it can often take years - sometimes more than a decade - before traditional symptoms are noticed.

Additionally, software like EverSafe not only alerts to potential cognitive changes but discrepancies that are the result of fraud.

The Centers for Disease control and prevention predicted the number of people with Alzheimer’s and other related dementias would nearly triple in the next 40 years and early diagnosis, they said will be the key to helping families cope.

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