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Study: Financial Exploitation Connected to Brain Changes in Healthy Older Adults

Gunther, Jilenne

Older adults with otherwise healthy brains sometimes develop biological changes that could put them at risk for financial exploitation, according to a study published earlier this year by researchers from Cornell and York universities. Previous studies had identified a link between brain disease (mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease ) and increased risk of financial exploitation, but this is the first study to look for biological risk factors among otherwise healthy adults who are aging normally.


What the Study Reveals

Researchers examined the brains of 26 adults who had experienced financial exploitation. Half had recognized and avoided them, while the other half were victimized. Among the scam victims, the scientists found two key sections of the brain that had diminished connectivity or increased atrophy. These changes in the brain could make older adults more susceptible to financial abuse, the findings suggest.


One of the areas of the brain that differed among the fraud victims is the anterior insula. This area is associated with salience-detection (the degree to which things stand out from their environment), affect-based decision-making (decision-making based on gut feeling or intuition) and reward anticipation. In the study group, the anterior insula was particularly atrophied – which could suggest that the brain is less able to identify a risky situation.


The other area of the brain that showed diminished connectivity is associated with evaluating social situations – that is, inferring the thoughts or intentions of others. Researchers concluded that individuals with this condition have a reduced ability to detect when others are acting untrustworthy.


For the study, participants completed a neuropsychological and behavioral assessment, and received brain MRI scans. Behavioral testing included 45 assessments in three primary categories: measures of cognition, personality and social interaction, and financial abilities. The only significant difference observed in the behavioral screening was that the participants who had been victims of financial abuse reported feeling more anger and hostility. In most respects, the two groups were very similar – but the MRI scans indicated notable differences in brain structure and function.


One Meaningful Step

Although the study shows a possible connection between the brain changes that occur in normal aging and increased vulnerability to financial exploitation, additional large-scale studies are needed to confirm these findings. One challenge faced by researchers is that older adults are often unaware that they have been exploited – or are unwilling to report it, either due to feelings of embarrassment or a desire for privacy.


Still, the study is a unique first step in understanding the neurological factors that put older adults at risk for fraud and scams. According to recent data, about one in 20 adults older than 60 has experienced some form of financial abuse – a rate higher than that of cancer, heart disease, and many other age-related diseases. While we are far off from knowing if certain changes in the brain can increase risk to exploitation, the study does suggest that we need to do more than only educate the at-risk to prevent exploitation. We must also empower those who are in positions to see the red flags of exploitation – people including friends, family and bankers. We can do this by giving bank staff the tools to see those red flags and advocate for their customers, and by educating friends and family.


In short, we must empower an army of advocates to protect those who struggle to pick up on the warnings signs of exploitation.

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