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Why seniors may be especially vulnerable to financial fraud

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If you're like most people, you have probably received the occasional e-mail from a stranger promising instant riches. It may be from someone claiming you have won a huge foreign lottery. All you have to do is pay the taxes – in advance of course – and the cash is yours.

It's an obvious trick to get you to transfer funds to an offshore bank account, whereupon the money would disappear into thin air. Who would be foolish enough to fall for such blatant fraud?

Plenty of people, according to researchers at the University of Iowa. The researchers say they have identified the part of the brain that governs belief and doubt. Unfortunately, this region – known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (or vmPFC) – can deteriorate with age. It could be the reason why some seniors are especially vulnerable to financial fraudsters and charlatans.

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The findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, are based on an assessment of healthy individuals as well as patients with different types of brain injuries. Volunteers were shown a series of misleading advertisements – some of which contained disclaimers indicating they were clearly stretching the truth.

The results revealed that patients who had damaged vmPFC were roughly twice as likely as the other participants to believe the misleading ads.

"The current study provides the first direct evidence beyond anecdotal reports that damage to the vmPFC increases credulity. Indeed, this specific brain deficit may explain why highly intelligent vmPFC patients can fall victim to seemingly obvious fraud schemes," the researchers wrote in their paper.

The patients who participated in the study had suffered from serious brain trauma, such as strokes and tumours.

But the vmPFC also appears to lose its "structural integrity" with the normal aging process, said the study's lead author, Erik Asp, who recently took on a post-doctoral research position at the University of Chicago. In other words, it ceases to operate properly and many seniors become more credulous over time.

The pace and degree of deterioration varies greatly. Some individuals maintain the mental riggers of a "Doubting Thomas" well into their 90s. But, in general, "as people move into their sixth and seventh decade of life, there seems to be a decline in the function of this area of the brain," said Dr. Asp.

"It's important for family, friends and caregivers to be aware that the person may not have the biological ability to doubt information," he said. This knowledge could prove invaluable in shielding vulnerable individuals from con artists.

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