Petty Crimes Could Signal Early Dementia, Study Finds

hands of aging womanDementia is a collection of brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s, that cause decreased cognitive functioning and memory loss. Early detection can improve treatment outcomes and give those diagnosed with dementia time to plan, but diagnosing the issue isn’t always simple; doctors often rely on symptoms and the process of elimination to diagnose the disease.

A new study published in JAMA Neurology suggests that, among seniors, the sudden commission of petty crimes such as shoplifting and trespassing could be an early warning sign of dementia.

Does Dementia Lead to Petty Crimes?

To evaluate early dementia-related behavior changes, researchers reviewed records from almost 2,400 people seeking care at the University of California San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center. Participants experienced various types of cognitive impairments, with 545 experiencing Alzheimer’s and 171 experiencing frontotemporal dementia. The latter form of dementia commonly affects impulse control.

Among those with frontotemporal dementia, 37% had engaged in criminal behavior, with traffic violations, inappropriate sexual advances, and trespassing ranking among the most common issues. Eight percent of people with Alzheimer’s had engaged in petty criminal behavior, with 11 reported cases of more serious crimes, such as violence. For 14% of people with frontotemporal dementia, petty crimes were the first symptom of the condition.

Dementia and the Legal System

Georges Naasan, one of the study’s authors, points out that these data raise important legal issues. People experiencing the early stages of dementia, especially those experiencing frontotemporal dementia, often seem “normal,” causing bystanders to label their behavior as criminal rather than as a product of a brain disorder.

Dementia can erode impulse control while changing personality, so any sudden changes in behavior or emotion warrant a conversation with a physician. And when an older member of the family appears to be engaged in criminal behavior, the problem could actually be brain deterioration, not a newly discovered commitment to a life of crime.


Norton, A. (2015, January 8). Petty ‘crimes’ sometimes tied to dementia. Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment


    January 13th, 2015 at 10:57 AM

    Oh man watch out- my little brother and I are in big trouble

  • Adam


    January 13th, 2015 at 3:19 PM

    Would I be overstepping and reaching a bit if I then assumed that perhaps those with the early onset of dementia cannot tell the difference between right and wrong and that this could be the reason behind many of the petty crimes which are committed? If that is the thought then there should be a very useful screening process used with those who have committed crimes to determine if indeed they are going to later on be at risk for developing full blown dementia.

  • alice


    January 14th, 2015 at 3:33 PM

    Once my grandmother was diagnosed there were so many little things that started making sense to us that baffled us all before.
    It was ugly, this turned her into a totally different person than what she had been and I feel so terribly sorry for others who have to witness the changes that their loved ones go thru as this horrid disease progresses.

  • Benita


    January 16th, 2015 at 10:14 AM

    they somehow forget the difference between right and wrong when they start doing things like this

  • Janice


    January 23rd, 2015 at 1:20 PM

    This could mean that it becomes very important for family members to keep a close eye on their older parents and grandparents to prevent them for getting into real trouble for something that they have no realization is wrong.

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