Why older adults may be more vulnerable to scams

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Researchers say the reason may lie in how the brain ages

It's well known among law enforcement officials and scammers alike that older consumers tend to be more vulnerable to scams than their younger counterparts.

It's been attributed in part to generational differences, with older people more trusting than young people. But researchers at Cornell, working with colleagues at York University in Toronto, have come up with a different explanation.

They argue that not all older adults are vulnerable to financial exploitation. And the reason some are is their brains have aged differently.

The researchers assembled a group of older consumers, some of whom had fallen victim to a scam, either by a family member or a stranger, and some who had not. On the surface, the researchers could see very little difference. Both groups appeared engaged and mentally sharp.

Behavioral tests

They put both groups through a battery of behavioral tests. Using 45 markers, they measured memory, attention span, ability to evaluate information, financial reasoning and emotional control. The only difference between the group that had been scammed and the one that had not is the victim group was more likely to display anger and hostility in stressful situations.

Then the researchers conducted brain scans on their subjects and found noticeable differences. The victim group had atrophy in the anterior insula and fewer connections from it to a broader brain network.

That area of the brain processes signals when something out of the ordinary is going on, picking up on a negative vibe or recognizing potential hazards. As a general rule, this area loses some function during the normal aging process.

“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,” said lead author Nathan Spreng, assistant professor of human development at Cornell. “So, they’re not as sensitive to losing money.”

Harder to see risk

Spreng and his colleagues discovered among the victims, that region of the brain was particularly atrophied, suggesting these consumers had a harder time recognizing risky situations.

The seniors in the victim group also had decreased neural connections in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that helps understand social situations. In particular, it helps people read the intentions of other people.

The researchers concluded that vulnerability to scams had less to do with behavior and personality and more to do with a physical condition.

“It’s not their fault they’ve been abused,” Spreng said. “It’s not because they made a bad decision. There are biological reasons why these abuses have occurred, and we’re trying to get a handle on that.”

Spreng says when older adults are having a hard time navigating social situations, it should be treated as a medical issue, not societal one.

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