Study finds brain damage makes elderly susceptible to scams

In an earlier post, we discussed methods that were being used to scam the elderly out of money. But did you know that there’s a scientific reason that the tactics of con artists often work on the elderly?

Researchers at the University of Iowa have found that it may be the result of parts of the brain deteriorating or becoming damaged. To make this conclusion they pinpointed the exact location in the human brain that controls belief and doubt. It’s called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and its condition may explain why some are more easily duped than others.

The National Institute of Justice conducted a study in 2009 that found nearly 12 percent of Americans 60 and older had been exploited financially by a family member or stranger. Combine this with an estimate by MetLife that the annual loss to victims of elder financial abuse totals $2.9 billion and you’ve got a good picture of how often the elderly are exploited.

Nearly the size of softball, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is oval in shape and lodged in the front of the human head above the eyes. It’s part of a larger area that controls a number of emotions and behaviors including impulsiveness and poor planning. Though this is known by scientists, it has been difficult for them to find which regions of the prefrontal cortex are responsible for specific behaviors such as belief and doubt.

To crack this mystery the University of Iowa team relied on its Neurological Patient Registry. The registry was established in 1982, with more than 500 active members suffering various forms of brain damage to one or more regions of the brain. From this sampling the researchers selected 18 patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and 21 with damage outside of this area.

Then those patients, along with people with no brain damage, were shown (slightly misleading) advertisements as flagged by the Federal Trade Commission to test how much they believed about the ads.

It was found that patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were about twice as likely to believe an ad, even when given disclaimer information that stated it was misleading. Also, they were more likely to say they’d buy the item regardless of how misleading an ad had been.

Even without prior damage, this region of the brain begins to deteriorate in people 60 and older. The deterioration onset and speed varies from person to person, however. Hopefully, these findings will help caregivers and family members be more understanding of the decisions that the elderly make.

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