Study: Elder fraud has biological roots

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SARASOTA - A recent study suggests that physical changes in our brains as we age could explain why elderly people fall for scams more often than the rest of us.

The study by UCLA researchers found that older people had more trouble picking up on visual cues in the faces of people trying to scam them. MRIs showed that a part of the brain called the anterior insula had less activity in older people confronted by untrustworthy faces than the same part of the brain in younger people did.

"The science is demonstrating more and more that there's biological factors to account for it," says Kathy Black, a USF Sarasota-Manatee associate professor of gerontology who was not part of the study. As fascinating as she found the research, she warns against using it to draw what she calls false conclusions. "We wouldn't want people to think that all older people can't manage their finances," she says.

The emerging science could change long-held views that the elderly's vulnerability to scams has its roots in sociology, not biology, that older people grew up in more trusting times and have not adapted. The research indicates that getting scammed could go deeper than gullibility or greed. "I've always thought of it more as a cultural thing," says Sarasota elder law attorney Ira Wiesner. He'd like to know if researchers distinguished between those of the World War II generation and those only in their 60s or 70s. And like Black, he doesn't think that the study means that we all face an inevitable end and "that we'll all start accepting everything we hear and falling prey to all kinds of exploiters."

As scientists learn more about potential physical causes for getting scammed, it could remove more of the stigma that prevents victims from revealing when scams happen to them. "They're very self-conscious at the fact they got scammed," Wiesner says. "And it's very embarrassing.

That's why even though fraud is estimated to cost the elderly about $3 billion a year, no one really knows how big the problem is because so many people are too ashamed to report it, many for fear of losing their independence.

"Because if this reflects such a bad judgement," Black says victims expects people to say, "'where else are you doing bad judgements? Maybe you're not able to live alone.'"