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Why the elderly fall victim to scams: Blame the aging brain

Shelley Taylor's elderly aunt was once deceived into buying "diamond" earrings through the mail. They turned out to be cheap glass. Taylor's father was conned out of a significant sum of money when he was in his mid-70s by a seemingly "nice man," who accompanied him to the bank to withdraw the cash. As he later found out, the man was anything but nice.

Others might have smelled a scam a mile away, but as with many older people, their ability to detect deception was askew.

Law enforcement experts and con artists have long known the elderly are particularly vulnerable to financial swindles, from bogus charities to investment scams. Now Taylor, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her fellow researchers have made an important discovery that could explain why.

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In a new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they found that an area of the brain called the anterior insula, which helps alert us to dishonesty, is less active in older adults than in younger people. In the first part of their study, the researchers asked participants in two separate age groups – one between the ages of 55 and 84, and the other averaging 23 years of age – to judge the trustworthiness of a series of faces shown in photographs.

While both groups reacted the same way to photos of faces that were intentionally selected for their trustworthy and neutral expressions, the older adults were more inclined to rate untrustworthy faces, characterized by insincere smiles and averted eyes, as reliable and approachable.

"Most of the older adults showed this effect," Taylor said in a press release. "They missed facial cues that are pretty easily distinguished."

The researchers then monitored participants' brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, while they rated similar photographs. The anterior insula, which is involved in forming instincts or gut reactions, was found to be active in younger adults as they made their judgments, but not in the older participants.

"The older adults do not have as strong an anterior insula early-warning signal; their brains are not saying 'be wary,' as the brains of the younger adults are," Taylor said. "It's not that younger adults are better at finance or judging whether an investment is good; they're better at discerning whether a person is potentially trustworthy when cues are communicated visually."

The old and the young would be wise to heed her advice for avoiding scams: Hang up on telephone solicitors and avoid pushy salespeople and free lunch seminars offering investment pitches. "I'm not saying that all of these are fraudulent," she said, "but the best thing that you can do if your brain isn't helping you to make these discriminations is not to have to make them."

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