Study points to better testing of seniors' cognitive health

Older Australians are selling themselves short when it comes to their own cognitive health, according to a new report from National Seniors.

Research Director Professor John McCallum said an unintended consequence of a growing awareness of dementia was leading some people to believe their cognitive ability was declining when it wasn’t.

Conversely, the same study discovered that cognition among older Australians could deteriorate without people realising it, causing problems in decision-making and putting people at risk.

It also revealed there could be an upside to adult children staying at home longer: older people with dependents in the household scored better in cognitive tests. On the downside, participants with less education and applied financial literacy scored worse in cognitive tests.

Prof. 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,” Prof. 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.”

Prof. McCallum said it took on average about three years from when symptoms of cognitive decline first appeared to disease diagnosis. But during this period, people could 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,” Prof. 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.”

Fear of consequences such as losing their driver’s licence, being ostracised, or anxiety about where to go for help caused people to delay diagnosis of cognitive decline.

The study was conducted in two stages. The first examined self-reported levels of cognitive function and attitudes to screening, financial literacy, and decision-making networks.

Stage two trialled a new and innovative online cognitive assessment, known as CANTAB, which originated from Cambridge University in the UK, and was completed in the participants’ homes.

Prof. McCallum said the online assessments were well received, with more than half the participants preferring this type of evaluation.

National Seniors was focussing on promoting financial, digital and information literacy among its members, and the new study was 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,” Prof. McCallum said.

“It also shows that regular cognitive screening of older community members is warranted, especially given the positive response to the online assessments.”

The full report can be read online here. 

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