Willingness to give away money could be linked to the earliest stages of Alzheimer's disease, suggests a study.

Sixty-seven older adults who did not have dementia or cognitive impairment completed a laboratory task where they decided whether to give money to an anonymous person or keep it for themselves. They also completed a series of cognitive tests, such as word and story recall.

Those who gave away more money performed worse on the cognitive assessments known to be sensitive to Alzheimer's disease, according to the study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

"Our goal is to understand why some older adults might be more susceptible than others to scam, fraud or financial exploitation," said Duke Han, Professor at University of Southern California.

Alzheimer's disease
Alzheimer's diseasepixabay

"Trouble handling money is thought to be one of the early signs of Alzheimer's disease, and this finding supports that notion," he added.

Earlier research that tested the link between altruism and cognition relied on self-report measures, such as asking older adults whether they would be willing to give money in certain scenarios. The present study used real money to examine the link.

"To our knowledge, this is the first study to explore the relationship using a behavioural economics paradigm, meaning a scenario where participants had to make decisions about giving or keeping actual money," said Gali H. Weissberger, lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

The team recruited 67 adults for the study, who were paired with an anonymous person completing the study online. They were then given $10 and instructed to allocate it however they wished, in $1 increments, between themselves and the anonymous person.

Alzheimer's disease
Alzheimer's diseaseIANS

The older adults also completed a series of neuropsychological tests, including several that are commonly used to help diagnose Alzheimer's disease in its early stages.

Participants who gave more away scored significantly lower on the neuropsychological tests known to be sensitive to early Alzheimer's disease. There were no significant performance differences on other neuropsychological tests.

However, more research is needed to confirm the nature of the relationship between financial altruism and cognitive health in older adults, including with larger and more representative samples.

But, "if a person is experiencing some kind of change in their altruistic behaviour, that might indicate that changes are also happening in the brain", Weissberger said.