Criminal Actions Later in Adulthood May Be Sign of Dementia

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Going through my closet recently, I came across an old cigar box and an old egg carton. Opening them up, I was transported back in time when I was in my late teenage years. Both containers housed many sparkly but inexpensive baubles. They were primarily rhinestone buttons and other types of shiny ornaments, some of which my grandmother had “swiped” from my parents’ fabric store. Realizing that Grandma already was suffering from some sort of cognitive decline (which seems to run on that side of the family), Mom realized what was going on and started giving Grandma baubles to hoard in order to keep her occupied and away from the store’s sparkly items that were for sale to real customers.

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    Grandma didn’t mean to “steal” these items. And fortunately, our family owned the store so no legal charges were pressed concerning these missing items.


    But that brings up an interesting question and dilemma – are people who have dementia likely to commit criminal acts? And if so, what should be done about it?

    First, we can start to address the initial question thanks to a new study out of the University of California San Francisco. In this effort, researchers conducted a review of medical records of 2,397 people who were seen at the UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center between 1999 and 2012. Of these participants, 545 had Alzheimer’s disease, 171 had the behavioral variant of frontotemporal dementia, 89 had semantic variant of variation of primary progressive aphasia, and 30 had Huntington disease.


    In looking at the frequency of criminal behavior, the researchers found that less than 9 percent of the medical records that were reviewed overall showed a history of criminal behavior. The researchers then analyzed how many of the people in each major dementia group had some type of criminal history.  That’s where it got interesting.

    The researchers found that 37 percent of the study’s participants who had the behavioral variant of frontotemporal dementia were found to have criminal behavior. The common types of criminal behavior in this group included theft, traffic violations, sexual advances, trespassing and public urination. Furthermore, criminal behavior is more likely to show up as an early manifestation of this disorder. (Frontotemporal dementia is seen in about 10-15 percent of all dementia cases. In the behavioral variant of this type of dementia, people lose their ability to control normal impulses.)  In comparison, 27 percent of the patients who had semantic variant of primary progressive aphasia, 20 percent of patients with Huntington disease, and about eight percent of patients with Alzheimer’s disease had criminal behaviors.

    You’d think that people with Alzheimer’s would have more criminal history since that type accounts for 60-80 percent of the dementia cases. However, the researchers noted that Alzheimer’s tends to attack areas toward the back of the brain that control memory and visual-spatial skills. Therefore, behavior problems or aggression in Alzheimer’s patients tend to develop in when the disease reaches a more advanced stage. Thus, the researchers found that the primary offenses among people with Alzheiemr’s were traffic violations.

  • That brings me to the second question about what should be done about these cases. That’s a hard one to call. While the easy answer would be to treat everyone the same, if you’ve ever dealt with someone with any form of dementia, you realize that you can’t – and I believe, shouldn’t -- follow the normal rules of dealing with these cases. Therefore, the UCSF researchers suggested that evaluation of criminal activity in relationship to a demented individual might require the use of different criteria instead of the typical “insanity defense” that is used in the U.S. legal system. Furthermore, these individuals’ cases should be treated differently when being judged due to the impairment that the individuals are suffering. Finally, the researchers suggest that criminal behavior that begins during a later stage of adulthood might be a signal that some form of dementia may be present and should result in an evaluation for frontal and anterior temporal brain disease or another type of dementia.

    Primary Resources for This Sharepost:

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    Alzheimer’s Association. (ND). Types of dementia.

    Liljegren, M., et al. (2015). Criminal behavior in frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. JAMA Neurology.

    MedlinePlus. (2015). Petty ‘crimes’ sometimes tied to dementia: Thefts, traffic violations may be first signs of mental decline, researchers said.

Published On: January 09, 2015