Financially exploited seniors show brain differences and are more frail

November 22, 2020

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Financially exploited seniors show brain differences and are more frail

Scams and fraud exact a heavy toll on older adults, with estimates of yearly losses of an estimated $36 billion in the U.S. alone.

Lasting damage can occur. Because many seniors live off of resources accumulated across their working lifetimes, such as retirement savings, victims may be unable to recoup what’s taken from them. Considering the additional impact on family members and caretakers, financial exploitation in this growing demographic is a significant public health concern.

Two recent studies provide new insight into the little-studied question of which factors put older adults at risk for financial exploitation.

One, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, is only the second brain imaging study to center on financial exploitation in older adults. The scientists found that those who report being financially exploited show differences in the activity of brain regions tied to decision-making and social judgments compared to those without a history of financial exploitation.

The other, which appears in Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine, is the first study to focus specifically on the relationship between financial exploitation and frailty in older adults. The findings showed that those who reported being financially exploited are frailer physically—with deficits in vision and hearing—compared to their peers.

What the researchers say: “Ultimately, we want older adults to experience all the best in life, to hold onto their wealth and to live life well into old age,” said the lead author of both studies. “It crushes us to see them financially exploited. However, not all older adults are at risk for financial exploitation, and we want to try to predict which people might be more at risk.”

The Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience study used magnetic resonance imaging to examine neurological co-activity. The researchers compared 16 older adults who reported experiencing financial exploitation with 16 who did not, studying their brains while in a resting state. The scientists delved into functional connectivity—in other words, which brain regions activate at the same time.

Functional connectivity can serve as a sort of canary in the coal mine, signaling changes that come with age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s, before alterations to structures in the brain are detectable (there was an article on this recently in TR).

The research team focused in on three areas of the brain tied to making decisions and evaluating social situations. The study demonstrated subtle but significant differences between connectivity in these regions among those who reported financial exploitation compared to the control group:

  • The medial frontal cortex, which is a seat of executive functioning in the brain
  • The hippocampus, which is tied to remembering specific events and envisioning future scenarios
  • The insula, which is associated with evaluating the trustworthiness of people or situations

“It makes sense that the ability to project a future self through the hippocampus and the ability to assess trustworthiness through the insula might be implicated in financial exploitation risk,” the lead author said.

Problems seeing and hearing may also put seniors at risk according to the same researchers.

For the Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine research, they employed a widely used questionnaire for identifying frailty to compare 24 seniors who reported financial exploitation with 13 peers who hadn’t experienced it. The assessment asked about physical issues including fatigue, difficulty walking and poor hearing or vision; psychological issues such as anxiety and problems remembering; and social issues such as isolation and loneliness.

The participants who had experienced financial exploitation reported being significantly frailer than the control group, with that difference showing up on the physical scale but not the measures of psychological or social frailty. Specifically, they reported significantly poorer hearing and marginally poorer sight.

“The methods that scammers and fraudsters use put a stress on being able to see and hear things accurately,” the researchers said. “It stands to reason that this would actually be a mechanism for how certain older adults might be more vulnerable to financial exploitation.”

The researchers hope to build on these findings to conduct a larger study that investigates whether measures such as the use of hearing aids and properly calibrated corrective lenses provide protection against financial exploitation.

“This research really does point to the importance of regular visits with a doctor and keeping up on your hearing and vision,” the lead author said.

So, what? TR readers might have noticed several studies on aging that I have reported recently. My current interest in aging stems partly from my firm’s involvement with the University of Queensland-led CRC Longevity project.

But more than that was the realization that I came to several decades ago from my own studies and those of numerous other researchers, that many of the “diseases of old age” were not really diseases related specifically to old age at all. They had their origins much earlier—in genetics, in early experience and in our social system and the increasing stress we’re all under.

This research provides a deeper understanding of the connection between mental and physiological functioning—at, I assume, any age—and the danger of being exploited. I would like to see this research conducted on people of different ages. I believe the results might be broadly similar.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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