Many elderly people have fallen for misleading information and scams, which often led to retirees losing their life savings to fraudulent behavior. Older generations seem to fall for these scams more easily than younger people, and two new studies reveal that sections of the brain are to blame for elderly people being more susceptible to becoming victims, according to NBC News. Researchers hope that further studies will help stop the prevalence of this elderly abuse.
Professor Shelley Taylor of the University of California Los Angeles conducted a study to understand why the elderly seem to miss the signs for untrustworthiness in people. Following 119 elderly residents between ages 55 and 84 who lived in a senior living home, researchers showed the subjects photos of both neutral/trustworthy faces and faces that exhibited visual clues that are often associated with untrustworthiness, such as a shifty gaze or smiling without the eyes. To compare results, the same faces were also shown to a group of 24 staff and students between the ages of 20 and 42.
Study subjects were asked to rate the level of trustworthiness of the people in the photos. Both groups reported equal ratings of trustworthiness in the neutral faces, but the elderly group couldn’t pick up on the untrustworthy visual cues in the other photos. Taylor’s team expanded the study and used an fMRI to observe the brain of 23 elderly subjects and 21 younger adults as they looked at the pictures. The anterior insula, which is the section of the brain that produces that “gut reaction,” was active in the brains of the younger adults, but did not activate nearly as much, if at all, in the older people.
Researchers at the University of Iowa conducted a similar study in August 2012 that revealed damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC, results in a lessened ability to process doubt and skepticism when taking in visual information. Located above the eyes, the vmPFC is responsible for emotions and behaviors related to impulse control, including the ability to feel doubt and skepticism. Patients with healthy vmPFC’s were compared to patients with damage to this region of the brain, and the results show that patients with damaged vmPFC’s were two times more likely to fall for misleading ads, even when there was a disclaimer about the validity of the information being shown.
Taylor will continue her studies by observing the brain responses of the elderly during a real, in-person financial scam. She hopes her efforts will help protect older people from fraud and identify what the younger generations have that the elderly seem to be missing. Taylor struggles to explain that kind of “uh-oh” gut reaction: “It’s not something you can necessarily verbalize. That’s what the older adults aren’t getting.”