Study Suggests Why Elderly are Good Scam Targets

Money dulls physical pain and eases the sting of rejection, new research shows.

The possibility of losing money stresses young adults out, but it doesn’t seem to faze the elderly. New research reveals that while both young and old adults had similar levels of brain activity when anticipating rewards, certain brain regions in older adults didn’t activate when responding to a potential financial loss. Published in the April 29 online edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience, the results add to the understanding of how age affects mental processes. It could also explain why older people are more susceptible to monetary scams. Money games Gregory Samanez Larkin, a psychologist at Stanford University, and his colleagues compared brain activity of 12 younger adults, 19 to 27 years old, and 12 older adults ranging from 65 to 81 years old, with half men and half women. The participants completed tasks requiring them to respond to a cue in order to win or avoid losing money . For instance, one cue would state, “You could potentially win $5 if you are quick enough to press this button when you see a certain shape.” Once they find out what’s at stake, the participants had to wait a few seconds before beginning the task. For each task, the participants also rated their positive and negative feelings about the prospect of a potential gain or loss. When anticipating a possible gain, both young and old adults had relatively equal activation in a brain region called the striatum that’s strongly tied with rewards and was first studied in relation to addictions. The scientists also looked for activity in two other brain areas that are responsible for behavior related to losses and pain, and to a lesser degree reward anticipation. “When you tell them you might lose some money, the younger adults reported being really stressed out. They were pretty anxious about the potential to lose,” Samanez Larkin told LiveScience, “and brain activation in these regions just ramped up.” Those brain regions, called the caudate and the insula, remained “silent” in older adults who also didn’t report anxiety over the possibility of losing money. “This is just anticipation, nothing has happened yet. They may or may not lose money,” Samanez Larkin said. “When they do actually lose money they showed indistinguishable activation.” Financial scams There are two ways of interpreting the results, one good and the other not so good, the researchers say. “This is a situation where nothing has happened, and the younger adults are getting pretty worked up over it but the old aren’t,” Samanez Larkin said. “So maybe this promotes well-being in older adults. They aren’t getting unnecessarily stressed out about something that may or may not happen in the future.” On the other hand, not reacting to a potential loss could be detrimental if older adults are oblivious to signals of something harmful in their environment. “[Older adults] are fine dealing with gains but something is screwed up with how they deal with losses, because they’re not really anticipating them like the young people are,” Samanez Larkin said. “One possible example is older adults are especially vulnerable to being scammed,” and this lack of brain activation could be to blame. “So older adults are told, ‘here’s this situation where you stand to gain a lot, here are all these great things about it,’ and they are taking that lead," Samanez Larkin said, "but they aren’t seeing the warning signs, where the younger adults maybe would see those.”

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.