New Brain Research Sheds Light on Financial Exploitation

Broaching the subject of finances with elderly friends and family members is never easy. Part of the concern is that the discussion itself might come across as intrusive or insulting, suggesting that the senior is unable to care for themselves. Considering that elderly community members have spent a lifetime managing their own affairs, it is understandable that they might balk at being told by another that they are suddently unable to do so now. Everyone strives to remain as active, alert, and engaged as possible no matter what age.

However, one issue that might help at least smooth some of the difficult edges in these conversations stems from science. An NBC News report sheds some light on actual structural brain changes that affect everyone in old age which have bearing on these issues. The story shares the work of a psychological researcher who found that fear centers in the brain are the key reason why many seniors are more susceptible to financial scams that others. Importantly, this research suggests that senior vulnerability might not be tied to diminished brain capacity–a suggestion that would obviously irk many elders. Instead, the issue may be the way that seniors process visual cues.

Seniors & Financial Scammers
The leading researcher on this topic recently published her work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the article, it all comes down to the way that brain processes fear and suspicion.

She notes, “You know the ‘uh oh’ sense you get sometimes, the little sense that something is not quite right? It’s not something you can necessarily verbalize. That’s what the older adults aren’t getting.”

The connection between trustworthiness and senior scams has long-been understood. However, in the past, it was often mistakenly connected to cultural differences. In other words, most assumed that those who lived in the early half of the 20th century grew up in an age when relying on the word of others–including those you didn’t know well–was acceptable. That is less the case today. And so the assumption was that today’s generation, when they get older, will not be as likely to fall for scams.

However, this research provides much more nuance. While trust and suspicion are at play, this work suggests that it is not cultural or generational–it is conencted to brain development over time.

One part of the research involved examing fMRI scans as individuals of different ages examined faces designed to be “trustworthy” or “untrustworthy.” The results were surprising. Researchers found systematic differences between younger viewers and older ones. In younger viewers, one particular part of the brain (anterior insula) was very active when viewing untrustworthy faces. The same was not true for seniors. In other words, the elderly brain’s were sending far fewer signals to the body designed to raise suspicions regarding the new faces in which they were coming in contact.

While detailed discussions about senior brain development might not be a common topic over the dinner table this holiday season, an awareness of this research may be helpful to work into difficult discussions about senior financial exploitation.

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