By Chris Adams

They’re two of the toughest conversations to have with aging parents: “Mom, it’s time to stop driving.” “Dad, it’s time to give up the checkbook.”

And in both cases, it’s a matter of risk: Risk of physical harm, and risk of financial ruin.

That said, plenty of older Americans maintain their finances well into their later decades. In fact, according to Wayne State University psychology professor Peter Lichtenberg, 95% of older adults manage debt, pay bills and maintain good credit just as well as 50-year-olds.

The reason: “crystallized intelligence.”

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Lichtenberg – who also directs both the Institute of Gerontology and the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute at the university – detailed some of the scary statistics of the issue of finances and aging. Using data from the Health and Retirement Study, a major longitudinal study funded by the federal government, Lichtenberg found that losses in wealth were linked to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and also that 61% of people who had lost wealth had experienced a cognitive decline but remained undiagnosed or untreated.

But others held onto their financial abilities – and their checkbooks.

“Think about vocabulary,” he said. “Your vocabulary doesn’t just stop. It’s the same with expertise.”

People who have handled their own finances over their lives will likely be able to continue to do so – unless they develop dementia. But older Americans who suddenly have to learn these new skills – think of a widow or widower whose spouse had handled all the finances – often can’t.

One of the key risks for older people losing their critical-thinking skills is the reality that they will be targeted by scammers. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently highlighted staggering losses experienced by older Americans.

Among the most common scams: the lottery winner scam, federal-impersonation scam (“I’m from the IRS and you owe us money”) and tech scams (“your computer needs servicing”).

“A lot of sales tactics go into these – these scammers are very good,” he said.