Study reveals important messages about cognitive decline
AN unintended consequence of the growing awareness of dementia was leading some people to believe their cognitive ability was declining when it wasn't a National Seniors Australia research project has found.
Research director Professor John McCallum said the same study also found that cognition among older Australians could deteriorate without people realising it, causing problems in decision-making and putting people at risk.
Other findings were a possible upside to adult children staying at home longer as older people with dependents in the household scored better in the cognitive tests.
On the downside, participants with less education and applied financial literacy scored worse in the tests.
Professor McCallum said the findings were among the key outcomes of National Seniors Australia's new research report titled Better ways of assessing cognitive health.
He said the importance of normal cognitive function to decision-making in later life had prompted National Seniors to undertake the study.
"Cognition can deteriorate without people being aware of it," Professor McCallum said. "People have to make important decisions about their finances as they age, and these decisions can have a major impact on their quality of life, where they live, even their health.
"So, it's important we understand better the attitudes of older people to cognitive screening and the impact of cognitive health on financial decision-making among Australians aged over 55.
"We wanted to assess alternative ways of screening for cognitive function; if people would use services if they were available; and where they would prefer to have the services delivered and by whom."
It was found it can take on average about three years from when the symptoms of cognitive decline first appeared for the disease to be diagnosed, but during that period researchers found people could very well be making important decisions that impacted their personal life and their jobs.
"This is especially risky in occupations where a high level of cognitive functioning is assumed, for example among doctors, when people are managing large amounts of money, or when they are deciding on health treatments, housing, or when to retire," Professor McCallum said.
"Early detection is critical as it allows people to be better prepared to make choices or adjustments before cognition is significantly impaired.
"The flip side of this is people may also self-limit their behaviour if they believe they have serious cognitive decline, even if the reality is they don't."
A delay in diagnosis of cognitive decline could happen due to a person's fear of the consequences such as losing their driver's licence, being ostracised, or anxiety about where to go for help.
National Seniors are focusing on promoting financial, digital and information literacy among its members so this study's outcomes are an important first step in developing tools that older Australians could use to assess their own cognitive function.
"The study revealed that cognitive health, age and level of education are important factors in how people cope with financial decision-making and in maintaining financial sufficiency as they age," Professor McCallum said.
"It also shows that regular cognitive screening of older community members is warranted, especially given the positive response to the online assessments."