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Brain changes can leave seniors vulnerable to scams

Older adults who have fallen for scams by friends, relatives, or strangers behave just as their peers who have avoided rip-offs do. They are able to balance their checkbooks. They can remember and evaluate information. Their personalities are normal, and their arithmetic is fine.

But their brains are different.

For the first time, researchers have found a biological basis for financial exploitation in the elderly. In a new study, exploited older people had more atrophy and less connectivity in two key areas of the brain.

“It’s not their fault they’ve been abused. It’s not because they made a bad decision.”

One region signals a person when something significant is happening around them, and the other tells them how to read social cues, like other people’s intentions.

Together, these age-related changes in the brain can make older adults more vulnerable to financial exploitation—especially when one considers that family members are the most common perpetrators of financial abuse.

“It’s not their fault they’ve been abused. It’s not because they made a bad decision,” says lead author Nathan Spreng, assistant professor of human development at Cornell University. “There are biological reasons why these abuses have occurred, and we’re trying to get a handle on that.

“Older adults are having a harder time navigating these tough social situations. We need to start treating this as a medical problem and not a societal one.”

Previous studies have shown that family members are the most common financial abusers. In the current study, published in the Journals of Gerontology, a man continued to steal from his grandmother even after she confronted him. A daughter charged $2,000 to a study participant’s account without permission. In another instance, a son’s girlfriend borrowed $4,000 and never paid it back.

Nearly one in 20 older adults can expect to be financially exploited beyond age 60, an incidence rate that is higher than many age-related diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and arthritis.

But this area is not very well studied, because many older adults are unaware or unwilling to report exploitation, embarrassed to reveal they have been scammed, or want to protect their privacy. “It’s hard to get scientific traction,” Spreng says.

For the study, researchers tested 26 older adults, half of whom had been robbed by family members or neighbors or scammed online or by phone. The other half had been exposed to a rip-off scheme but had recognized and avoided it.

The researchers did extensive behavioral tests on both groups to see if they behaved differently. Using 45 assessments, they measured the study participants’ memory, ability to pay attention to information and evaluate it, inhibitory control, aspects of personality, and financial reasoning.

The only difference in behavior between the two groups was that older adults who had been exploited reported feeling more anger and hostility.

But more significant differences showed up in the brain images.

“There’s a huge amount of money locked up in our elders’ assets. And people are actively pursuing them.”

Exploited elders had atrophy in the anterior insula and fewer connections from it to a broader brain network. The anterior insula signals when something salient is happening in the environment. In general, this area isn’t as responsive in older adults compared with the young, particularly in negative situations, Spreng says.

“If older adults are, say, gambling, they get the same excitement that they might win something as younger adults do, but they don’t have the same feeling of dread or disappointment for the losses. So, they’re not as sensitive to losing money,” he says.

The region was particularly atrophied in the study’s exploited group, suggesting that the brain wasn’t signaling they were facing a risky situation.

Exploited elders also had more atrophy and fewer neural connections in the medial prefrontal cortex, which helps us appraise social situations, like inferring the thoughts or intentions of others.

Surprisingly, networks of the anterior insula and the medial prefrontal cortex were more connected to each other. This suggests that poor sensitivity to financial risk combined with reduced detection of untrustworthiness may leave older adults vulnerable to scams.

More, larger studies are needed to validate the neural mechanism, but this study could be a first step in identifying a way to predict who might be vulnerable to financial exploitation, Spreng says.

The time is right, Spreng says, because the current generation of elders is the wealthiest ever.

“There’s a huge amount of money locked up in our elders’ assets,” he says. “And people are actively pursuing them.”


This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Susan Kelley-Cornell University
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