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How the Brain Makes Seniors Susceptible to Scams

$2.9 billion. That is how much senior Americans lose each and every year to various scams, according to MetLife’s Mature Market Institute. These scams take many different forms, from fake charity donations and false lottery winnings to unnecessary home repairs and outright theft from bank accounts. All those who care about protecting the health, well-being, and finances of local seniors should take the time to talk to loved ones about these issues.

However, it is often very difficult to have conversations with aging parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or elderly friends. That is because many seniors are understandably sensitive about their ability to handle their own affairs. After all, they likely spent a lifetime taking care of themselves through the good times and the bad, and it may come off as insensitive to suggest that their mental capacity has deteriorated in any way. The challenge of many of these conversations is one reason why many local residents may put off ensuring their loved ones financial security until it is too late.

This is a mistake. While there may be no way to completely get around some of the challenges of these conversations, they are mandatory nonetheless. In fact, new research into the causes of senior financial exploitation might actually make these conversations a bit more tolerable. That is because brain researchers are finding that susceptibility to scams is not necessarily related to mental capacity but changes in the way the brain operates in old age.

Brain Scans & Financial Scams
According to the latest research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and discussed in an NBC News article, reserachers have found that differences in the way that seniors process visual cues may be at the root of their increased risk of falling for financial scams. Much more work still needs to be completed. However, if verified, the research suggests that general cognitive decline is not necessarily at play when discussing the vulnerabilites of seniors and financial exploitation.
As part of the research, investigators tested volunteers of all ages on their perceptions of faces that were designed to be perceived as “trustworthy” and “untrustworthy.” They then asked participants to rate each face based upon their perceived trustworthiness levels. Researchers found that seniors were far less likely to identify facial cues that were intended to trigger decietfulness (i.e. a false smile).

Hoping to delve deeper, researchers went futher and conducted fMRI scans on participant brains when performing the same facial trustworthiness test. Surprisingly, they found that there were very clear brain activation differences between younger and older adults when examining the faces. In particular, for young people the untrustworthy faces triggered significant activation in a part of the brain known as the anterior insula. The same was not true for seniors This area of the brain is known to be connected to fear and suspicion.

The team summarized by nothering that, “a diminished ‘gut’ response to cues of untrustworthiness may partially underlie older adults’ vulnerability to fraud.”

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Elderly Man Loses Thousands in Phone Scam