WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — Elderly people are far more prone to being scammed due to brain changes that show they are more trustworthy and less wary of suspicious characters than their younger counterparts.

Seniors are less likely to identify shady characters than younger people, according to a study by Shelley Taylor of UCLA which was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Adults older than 60 lost at least $2.9 billion in 2010 due to financial exploitation in scenarios ranging from home repair scams to complex financial swindles. These numbers indicate a 12 percent increase from 2008, according to the MetLife Mature Market Institute.

Professor Taylor and her colleagues conducted studies comparing perceptions of trustworthiness among younger and older individuals. They concluded that older people tended to miss common cues that suggest a person is not trustworthy.

“It’s that ‘uh-oh’ response that people get,” Taylor told Reuters, who directs UCLA’s Social Neuroscience Laboratory. “The younger adults are getting that and the older adults are not.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), nearly 80 percent of scam victims are over 65.

One explanation may lie in a brain region that serves as a built-in crook detector. Called the anterior insula, this structure—which lights up in response to the face of an unsavory character—is less active in older people.

To see if older people really are less able to spot a shyster, Taylor and colleagues showed photos of faces considered trustworthy, neutral, or untrustworthy to a group of 119 older adults (ages 55 to 84) and 24 younger adults (ages 20 to 42). Signs of untrustworthiness include averted eyes, an insincere smile that doesn’t reach the eyes, a smug, smirked mouth, and a backward tilt to the head. The participants were asked to rate each face on a scale from -3 (very untrustworthy) to 3 (very trustworthy).

The “untrustworthy” faces were perceived as significantly more trustworthy by the older subjects than by the younger ones.

The researchers then performed the same test on a different set of volunteers, this time imaging their brains during the process, to look for differences in brain activity between the age groups. In the younger subjects, when asked to judge whether the faces were trustworthy, the anterior insula became active; the activity increased at the sight of an untrustworthy face.

Taylor said her findings contradict the notion that the current crop of post-war seniors was raised during a more trusting time and are simply too well mannered.

“That is not it. It’s an age-related trend,” Taylor said. “We’re going to see this with Boomers and Gen Xers.”

Taylor explains that the insula’s job is to collect information not about others but about one’s own body—sensing feelings, including “gut instincts”—and present that information to the rest of the brain.

She explained, “It’s a warning bell that doesn’t seem to work as well in older people.”


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