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Research Seeking to Understand How Changes in the Brain Make the Elderly Targets for Financial Fraud

With the holidays and the impending arrival of the next year, December should be a time of joy, celebration, and hope for things to come. However, as Panama City victim's lawyer Wes Pittman knows, it is also a peak season for financial fraud. Increasingly, these criminals are targeting our nation's seniors, and financial fraud against the elderly is a growing problem. We want to help the victims, but we also want to prevent the fraud upfront. One key component of prevention is comprehension; research that helps us understand why seniors fall prey to these charlatans can also help us to prevent future fraud.

Study Finds Aging Brains Less Able to Detect Facial Signs of Untrustworthiness

Perpetrators of fraud aren't known for their work ethic – they tend to seek out the most vulnerable targets. A new study gives insight into one factor that can make seniors particularly likely to fall victim to financial fraud. U.S. News & World Reports recently covered a study from the University of California, Los Angeles that found older people are less able to identify untrustworthy faces. Researchers determined that older people have less activity in the anterior insula, a region of the brain tied to disgust that also helps people identify untrustworthy faces. According to Professor Shelley Taylor, a psychology researcher involved in the study, this shift leads to a reduced warning signal and a brain that is less able to send a "Be Wary" message like it may have in a person's younger years.

The research study involved 119 older participants (aged 55 to 84 years, average age of 68) and 24 younger participants (averaging 23 years of age). Although both groups responded similarly to trustworthy and neutral faces, the older individuals were more likely to view untrustworthy faces as approachable and trustworthy. In a second study, the researchers used brain scans to examine the response of an older group (aged 55-80 years, average age 66) and younger group (average age of 33) to facial photographs. The younger brains showed an active anterior insula region when viewing and rating faces, with increased activity in response to untrustworthy faces. However, the older people showed little activity in the anterior insula region during the same task. The results of the study appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on December 3.

What makes a face untrustworthy? According to Professor Taylor, key signs of untrustworthiness are an insincere smile and eye contact that doesn't match that exhibited by honest individuals. In sum, the study found that brains respond differently to such signs with age. Younger adults have a strong reaction to these faces that allows them to evaluate trustworthiness more accurately than older adults, whose brain response is more muted.

Financial Fraud Targeting the Elderly: A Rising Threat

In addition to reporting the results of the University of California study, U.S. News also discussed the general threat of financial fraud targeting older Americans. The report noted that older people are often targeted in their 70s, a time when they must take required 401K annual distributions. One estimate suggested people over 60 lost over $2.9 billion due to financial exploitation in 2010, an increase of 12% over 2008. Crimes targeting senior ranged from home-repair schemes to complex financial scams. Notably, older people appear to be particularly susceptible to crimes involving interpersonal solicitation, a statistic that may be partially explained by the recently released brain studies. This research may help communities and interest groups tailor outreach efforts aimed at helping older people avoid falling prey to financial fraud.

If you or a loved one has been the victim of a financial scam targeting the elderly in the Florida Panhandle region, we can help. Our team represents victims of all forms of Panama City elder abuse, including physical abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation. As an experienced Panama City elder law attorney, Wes Pittman is dedicated to helping victims recover financial compensation in civil court. Please call to arrange a free consultation.


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