In Elder Scams, Biology’s Surprising Role

Compelling new study points to brain weaknesses in older Americans that make them vulnerable to risk and loss

An elderly friend of mine in Westchester County, New York, was scammed out of $12,000 a few years back by her so-called grandson.

It was the classic setup for which she fell hard. She kicked herself for it for weeks, months, afterward.

Her “favorite grandson” was on the phone, calling from the “sudden” trip he had taken to “Canada” with a bunch of “friends.” And because of some “problems” the guys had run into during their “trip,” well — he’d run out of money and was desperate for funds to tide him over and get him back home.

“Please, Grandma, don’t tell Dad,” her “grandson” told my friend over the phone in two separate calls. “He’ll kill me. Can you help me out? Can you wire me some money to get me out of this jam? I love you, Grandma. Please help me.”

This “grandson” gave instructions for where and when she should wire the money. My friend, feeling a sense of urgency (and sadly, not asking enough questions), was out the door, in her car and off to wire the money.

Related: The Secrets of Family Financial Fitness

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Long story short, my dear widowed friend, who was about 75 at the time, sent off thousands of dollars to an address she’d never heard of and never would again. She soon learned the entire thing was a scam — and that her real grandson was perfectly fine at home with his parents on the West Coast.

(Upshot: Though she called the police to report the incident, they had no jurisdiction, nor was anyone able to trace the calls.)

“It’s not their fault they’ve been abused. It’s not because they made a bad decision.”

Now along comes an interesting study that says many older adults — even though they’re perfectly capable of balancing their checkbooks, doing their grocery shopping, interacting with others and much more — have a neurological wiring flaw that makes them vulnerable to falling for scams by friends, relatives, or strangers (some of whom may pose as family members).

In a word, their brains are different.

“For the first time, researchers have found a biological basis for financial exploitation in the elderly. In a new study, exploited older people had more atrophy and less connectivity in two key areas of the brain.”

That’s from a report published in Futurity, which highlights discoveries by scientists at top research universities). It was originally posted March 28 by Susan Kelley on the website of Cornell University; the study’s results were also published in the Journals of Gerontology.

“One region [of the brain] signals a person when something significant is happening around them, and the other tells them how to read social cues, like other people’s intentions. Together, these age-related changes in the brain can make older adults more vulnerable to financial exploitation — especially when one considers that family members are the most common perpetrators of financial abuse.”

“It’s not their fault they’ve been abused. It’s not because they made a bad decision,” lead author Nathan Spreng, assistant professor of human development at Cornell University, noted in the piece. “There are biological reasons why these abuses have occurred, and we’re trying to get a handle on that. Older adults are having a harder time navigating tough social situations. We need to start treating this as a medical problem and not a societal one.”

The report noted that earlier studies had found family members to be the most common financial abusers. In the new study, a man continued to steal from his own grandmother “even after she confronted him. A daughter charged $2,000 to a study participant’s account without permission. [And] a son’s girlfriend borrowed $4,000 and never paid it back.”

Related: A Family’s Scariest Money Habit: Comparison

In essence, roughly one in 20 elderly people will be exploited financially after age 60, the Cornell study found — at a “rate that is higher than many age-related diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and arthritis.”

The area isn’t very well studied, however, partly because many older people are unaware of the issue, “unwilling to report the exploitation, embarrassed to reveal they have been scammed, or want to protect their privacy,” noted the report.

“It’s hard to get scientific traction,” said Spreng of Cornell.

To be sure, the study was a small one, and much more analysis must be done. Researchers worked with 26 older adults — “half of whom had been robbed by family members or neighbors or scammed online or by phone. The other half had been exposed to a rip-off scheme but had recognized and avoided it,” said the Cornell report.

“The researchers did extensive behavioral tests on both groups … Using 45 assessments, they measured the study participants’ memory, ability to pay attention to information and evaluate it, inhibitory control, aspects of personality, and financial reasoning. The only difference in behavior between the two groups was that older adults who had been exploited reported feeling more anger and hostility. But more significant differences showed up in the brain images.”

“Older adults don’t have the same feeling of dread or disappointment for [their gambling] losses. They’re not as sensitive to losing money.”

Here’s how: Those who had been exploited had “atrophy in the anterior insula and fewer connections from it to a broader brain network. The anterior insula signals when something salient is happening in the environment. In general, this area isn’t as responsive in older adults compared with the young, particularly in negative situations,” Spreng said.

“If older adults are, say, gambling, they get the same excitement they might win something as younger adults do, but they don’t have the same feeling of dread or disappointment for the losses. So they’re not as sensitive to losing money,” the researcher also said.

“The region was particularly atrophied in the study’s exploited group,” the Cornell report noted — suggesting the brain wasn’t telling these people they were encountering a risky situation.

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The older adults who had been exploited also had fewer neural connections in the medial prefrontal cortex, which helps people size up social situations, the study noted.

Spreng said the time is right for this type of analysis, as today’s elders are wealthier than ever before. “There’s a huge amount of money locked up in our elders’ assets. And people are actively pursuing them.”

meet the author

Maureen Mackey served as editor-in-chief and managing editor of LifeZette for nearly five years. Before that, she held senior editorial positions at major publications, helping The Fiscal Times win a MIN Award for Best New Site as managing editor and Reader's Digest win an American Society of Magazine Editors Award for General Excellence as book editor. Her work has appeared in Real Clear Politics, CNBC, A Fine Line, AARP Magazine, Yahoo Finance, MSN, Business Insider, and The Week, among other outlets. She is a member of the Newswomen's Club of New York and the American Legion Auxiliary.

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