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Published on: September 27, 2018
by Lisa Fletcher for WJLA:
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 Miscianga said, as I sat with her and her husband, Thom 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 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. He’d double or triple pay something that shouldn’t have been paid,” said Peggy.
Thom quickly admits he didn’t realize anything was amiss. “Not really, at first,” said Thom. “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.
“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.
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