Gerontologists and crime experts agree that older persons are more vulnerable to fraud and many have assumed it could be because of diminished brain capacity. However, new research suggests that older adults’ vulnerability might have more to do with the way our older brains process visual cues.
MetLife’s Mature Market Institute provided data to Maggie Fox in an NBC news report that America’s older adults lose $2.9 billion a year to fraud. The Mature Market Institute conducted a joint study with the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech and found that most fraud victims are between the ages of 80 and 89.
Maggie Fox’s news report also introduced the study results and personal feedback from Shelley Taylor, PhD, a highly regarded researcher and professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Taylor is studying why older persons seem to miss some of the visual cues they picked up when they were younger. As a result, she thinks that older persons become more vulnerable to dishonest people because they are not noticing the negative cues -- the feeling that “something isn’t quite right.”
“So many people say the postwar generation is a very trusting generation. The implication is that this is a problem that will go away (as younger generations age.)” Her research suggests something else might be at work — a change in the way older persons process fear and suspicion in the fear centers in the brain.
Taylor’s team conducted two studies. In one, they asked 119 people aged 55 to 84 to look at photographs of people’s faces and rate them for trustworthiness, using standard cues that have been well-studied. They asked 24 young adults in their 20s to do the same. The two age groups tended to react the same to the “trustworthy” and neutral faces. But those in the older group were far less likely to agree with the young people on who looked “untrustworthy.”
"They missed facial cues that are pretty easily distinguished,” Taylor said. “Is something going on the brain that would explain this pattern?” To investigate, Taylor’s team set up a second study using functional magnetic resonance imaging or MRI – a way to look at brain activity in real time. They studied 23 older adults aged 55 to 80 and 21 younger adults, with an average age of 33. “We wanted to find out whether there are differences in how the brain reacts to these faces, and the answer is yes, there are,” Taylor said.
In the younger adults, an area of the brain called the anterior insula was active when they were examining all the faces, but especially when looking at those with expressions or characteristics that people associate with being untrustworthy. This brain region did not activate nearly so much in the older people. “Their brains are not saying 'be wary,' as the brains of the younger adults are,” Taylor said. “Thus, a diminished ‘gut’ response to cues of untrustworthiness may partially underlie older adults’ vulnerability to fraud,” the team concluded in the report.
Taylor said it’s not clear whether this is a natural consequence of getting older, and more research is needed in this area to determine the cause. In the meantime, she has some advice for us. “The answer is to hang up,” Taylor advises. “Throw it away. Don’t open it. Don’t go to the free lunch seminar. Stop it at the source.”
I once had a neighbor who had early stage Alzheimer's and was taken for $5,000 by a man who came to her door and told her that her trees needed trimming. Of course he took off once she gave him a check. This is considered minor compared to other scams that have been documented against older adults who as a group lost more than $2 billion to scams in 2010. This amount continues to increase. We need to be aware that we may be losing some of our keenness as we get older and be on the alert for scammers! They are everywhere: on the phone; on the computer; in the mail; and some go door to door!