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The Aging Brain: The Reason Seniors Are Most Vulnerable To Scams

by Shannon Miller, ESQ.

elder law attorney shannon miller headshotThe Snake Oil Salesman has existed in society from the beginning preying on those who were old, weak, or compromised in some way. Unfortunately, the increased demand for Alexa, Zoom and social media as delivery methods for the snake oil sales pitch coupled with a thinning of the cortical insula in the brain as we age has created the Perfect Storm for exploitation of our most vulnerable citizens. And these attacks can be devastating– 80% of our nation’s wealth is held by those over the age of 65, which can be gone in the blink of an eye or the click of a mouse. Recovery from cybercrimes can be difficult, if not impossible. The science of the aging brain may offer some clues.

The Staggering Statistics of Exploitation Epidemic

Financial exploitation is an epidemic of monstrous proportions costing older Americans $36.5 billion annually in the United States, alone– the equivalent of McDonald’s earnings in 2019. Every time we get a coffee or burger, someone is giving away that same amount of money to a scammer. Not only does exploitation wreak financial havoc on victims, but the stress of losing financial security can be the gateway to traumatic health problems, and sometimes a death event.

It is estimated that 20% of those over the age of 70, have been exploited; that is approximately 5,000,000 seniors annually.

Seniors scammed by strangers lost an average of $17,000, while those who were ripped off by someone they know lost an average of $50,200, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found. On average, a scammer is able to repeat their scam or some mutated form of it three times before the victim catches on. The aging brain may be a contributing factor in scams.

This epidemic across our nation has become the focus of senior focused advocates across the country. Public interest advocates, legislators, social workers, law enforcement, financial advisors, facility administrators have all raised the red flag about what is happening to our most vulnerable citizens. And now our scientific community is peeling back the onion on what is happening when our brains can no longer detect the truth from a lie. Their preliminary research tells an astounding story about the human brain and the thinning of the cortical insula– the region of the brain just above your temple that defines the aging brain

What Is The Exploitable Brain?

There is growing evidence that the brain changes with age making seniors more exploitable. The inability to doubt or assess risk appears to be linked to an MRI visible brain change–the thinning of the cortical insula. Seniors “lose the shrewd” according to David Brancaccio, Journalist and Investigative Reporter, who has delved into the aging brain and identified those most at risk for being scammed.

Dr. Nathan Spreng, Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery and Director of The Laboratory of Brain and Cognition at McGill University, in his research on the aging brain, describes an increased level of optimism and well being along with less attention on the negative consequence or outcome, as contributions to vulnerability. He adds lack of social relationships and connections and growing social isolation as other risk factors.

The most compelling study to date involves adults who “took the bait” and fell for the scam, and others who resisted the scam. When placed under MRI, nearly all of the seniors’ brains who “took the bait” had a thinning of the cortical insula. Those who resisted the scam had no such thinning. This is compelling evidence about the exploitable or aging brain. But it is just the tip of the ice berg.

Several new studies are ongoing, including new research by Dr. Natalie Ebner at the University of Florida who will be increasing the study size to see if these initial findings can be confirmed.

In the meantime, using tools like Pre Need Consents Against Exploitation, which provide authority in advance to trusted contacts to lock down funds or freeze assets if exploitation appears to be occurring can prevent financial ruin. Also, using Trusted Contacts with financial assets and designating Agents under Durable Powers of Attorney can also help safeguard our vulnerable seniors.

What Are The Next Steps To Stop Exploitation?

But we need to do more. More research. More education. More legislating. We need more community involvement and policing. The exploitable brain is here to stay and we need to do more, much more to protect it.

If you are concerned about a loved one being compromised, making poor decisions regarding finances, or being exploited in any way, contact us. We specialize in preventing and stopping exploitation of our most vulnerable citizens, seniors. We take care of every step, use every legal tool, and guide you toward a solution that stops exploitation. You may call us at 352.379.1900 or complete the form below and we will contact you.