By Joel Dresang

Leading up to Election Day in November, we’ll doubtless hear more about older men and older brains and how they’re not as fit to serve as they once may have been. And though choosing a president is supremely crucial, we’d better direct some of that concern about diminished brainpower to our own situations.

I know that cognitive health is vital to our financial well-being. Research suggests that after our 50s, skills most essential to managing money – performing everyday math, completing tasks from lists, understanding financial concepts – begin to decline. By our 80s, about half of us can expect to be diagnosed with a cognitive impairment.

But as we’re seeing with the presidential candidates, diagnoses are elusive and vague. It’s easy to misinterpret and exaggerate the appearance of a memory lapse and draw unfair conclusions from it. On the other hand, what someone may casually dismiss as their own “senior moment” might signify something more consequential.

Our cognitive skills are crucial to our financial well-being. The capacity to manage money tends to start declining at the same time our assets are peaking and we’re relying on our investments in lieu of paychecks. If we don’t want to run out of money in retirement, if we hope to leave anything for heirs or charities, we should avoid losing our grip on our money as we age.

Out of curiosity for my own welfare (I’m past the age typically seen as the peak for financial acuity.), I started looking for a convenient do-it-yourself cognitive test I could take. But what I found were warnings that said only trained medical professionals could properly assess my mental fitness. For instance:

  • The Alzheimer’s Association noted efforts to detect dementia through biomarkers, brain imaging, cerebrospinal fluid, blood tests and genetic profiling.
  • Another site, with a “medically reviewed” self-assessment for dementia, clearly stated, “This quiz is NOT a diagnostic tool. Mental health disorders can only be diagnosed by licensed healthcare professionals.”
  • An article from Harvard Medical School offered self-administered exams but stressed that they “require training for primary care providers, to understand how the test should be used and how to interpret the results.”

My trouble is I’m not looking for any sort of diagnosis. I just want a casual self-checkup for some peace of mind.

For 20 years, my brother has been a research participant in the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention. As part of that vast project, he regularly completes a battery of tests that include questionnaires, blood samples, neuroimaging and spinal taps. Not even he knows his cognitive condition. He said researchers offer feedback only if they detect something he should investigate with his physician.

Warning signs of diminished financial capacity

  • Trouble paying bills
  • Difficulty doing simple math
  • Depleted savings accounts
  • Falling victim to scams
  • Disorganized checkbook
  • Unexplained purchases
  • Serious credit difficulties
  • Inappropriate investments

National Endowment for Financial Education; University of Alabama at Birmingham

Two points my brother made, though, are helping me think more about how I can keep tabs on my cognitive skills as I age.

First, he noted that his tests are ongoing. Cognitive capacities are so different from one individual to the next that you can’t just measure them like body temperate or blood pressure. My brother’s test results established a baseline against which researchers can evaluate his individual changes over time.

Second, my brother said that researchers ask participants to include a loved one in the study, someone who more objectively can report on changes they observe in the individual.

Based on my brother’s experiences and what I could glean from assessment tools I found online, I’ve concluded that the best ways to keep an eye on my head for finances follow steps I wrote about several years ago:

  • Include family. Share information and plans with your spouse and children. Bring them with you when you meet your investment advisor.
  • Simplify. Don’t make your financial life more complicated than it needs to be. Consolidate accounts when appropriate. Automate bill payments – just make sure to regularly monitor them for irregularities.
  • Freeze your credit. If you don’t plan to open new lines of credit, alert the three credit bureaus that any requests in your name are probably fraudulent. Read more about it here.
  • Designate. Arrange for others – family, trusted friends, financial professionals – to cover your back as your financial skills decline.

For his part, my brother – who’s as old as the major presidential candidates, said he outsourced management of his personal finances 40 years before he retired. In confiding in professionals whose judgment and expertise he trusted, my brother didn’t disengage from his finances, but he let specialists sweat the details so he could concentrate on his career and family and provide himself some peace of mind.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company, LLC.

Learn more
Guarding wealth against elusive decline, by Joel Dresang
Advancing age, declining capacity, by Joel Dresang
Trusted contacts for your sake
Naming beneficiaries: Communicate clearly, a Money Talk Video with Mike Hoelzl
(initially posted April 25, 2024)