December 19th, 2012 at 10:00 am
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Elders may miss suspicious signals from scammers

by Dorian Martin

You’ve probably heard the saying, “The eyes provide a window to the soul.” We often look into someone’s eyes to determine what their intent is, and we may be able to tell if the person is lying. It’s important to have the ability to gauge someone’s intentions in order to make sure you’re not being conned. However, new studies indicate that elders may not be able to read visual cues such as signs of dishonesty. I’d suggest that as caregivers, we need to be vigilant about making sure that our loved ones are not scammed by dishonest individuals.

Younger adults more wary than seniors?

The National Institute of Aging reports on two studies out of the University of California, Los Angeles. The first study involved 119 older adults who, on average, were 68 years old and 24 younger adults who, on average, were 23 years old. Each person was asked to look at 30 pictures of faces and rate them on trustworthiness and approachability. The researchers intentionally selected these photos based on whether they looked trustworthy, neutral or untrustworthy.

When they looked at faces that were classified as trustworthy or neutral, the older and younger participants had similar responses. However, the groups differed in their reactions to the untrustworthy faces; the older group rated them as more trustworthy and approachable than the younger adults did.

Elders show differences in brain activity

The second study involved 23 older adults, average age 66, and 21 younger adults averaging 33 years old. While having a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scan, each participant was asked to look at the photos of faces. The research analyzed the reaction of the anterior insula region of the brain, which is often associated with gut instincts such as those representing expected risk.

While using the MRI, the UCLA researchers found that the brains of younger adults displayed activity in the anterior insula region when rating the photos of faces. Furthermore, this brain region especially lit up when younger participants saw pictures of untrustworthy faces. In comparison, the researchers found that the anterior insula in the older participants did not show much activity.

The National Institute of Aging noted that these studies were among the first to show age differences in brain activation relating to the assessment of trustworthiness. The institute called for additional research to determine whether the changes in the anterior insula portion of the brain were due to the aging process or if, instead, older people are less motivated to identify social signals of untrustworthiness.

How can we fight senior scams?

So how can caregivers and family try to protect seniors from fraud? Talking regularly about what’s going on in an elder’s life may help uncover potential problems without making that person feel spied upon. If you do have a concern, have a conversation with the elder and explain why you are worried. Use your gut instinct to help your loved one avoid being taken in by a liar.

An article about scams aimed at seniors reminds us to be on the alert during phone calls, where we miss potential visual signs of dishonesty. For example, if telemarketers are too aggressive or even too friendly, we can say goodbye and hang up the phone. For more information, see my blog post on fraud risks for elders.

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