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The brains of exploited elderly show cognitive differences

Financial exploitation and abuse of our elderly population is a widespread problem. Studies have shown that one out of every 20 people have suffered some form of financial abuse by the age of 60. Considering that people are living longer - and our society is skewing older as a result - that statistic is not only troubling in the present, it could be a harbinger of an even bigger problem to come in the future.

The reasons why particular elders were seemingly singled out for abuse have never really been examined before, with most people just assuming that it boiled down to bad luck on their part and simple greed on the part of the perpetrators. While both of those statements may be true, an international team of researchers from Cornell University and Toronto's York University has found that there may be a biological factor to exploitation as well.

Behavior similarities, cognitive differences

This groundbreaking research was divided into two separate phases: behavioral analysis and brain imaging. The behavioral analysis portion was interesting in itself, with researchers finding that study participants who had been abused showed very little differences in terms of memory, comprehension and financial reasoning skills compared to those who hadn't been victimized, other than a higher incidence of anger or hostility towards others. The feelings of anger and distrust after abuse aren't surprising, given that most financial abuse is at the hands of friends, family or other trusted figures.

The cognitive function tests, performed via brain scans, showed very distinct differences in the brains of people who hadn't been subjected to financial abuse versus those who had. In particular, researchers discovered that two special regions of the brain known as the "anterior insula" and the "medial frontal cortex" had atrophied in people who had been financially exploited.

  • The anterior insula is responsible for salient reasoning, and for letting us know when something is "off" in our environment. The medial frontal cortex is part of our brain that helps us infer the intentions of others by appraising and analyzing social situations.

Researchers also found distinct neural connections between these areas of the brain in abuse victims, meaning that their brains were literally more likely to succumb because of the combination of a lack of intuition signaling potential trouble and an inability to infer possible questionable motives.

More research is definitely needed into this burgeoning area of scientific study, but it might be possible in the future to more accurately predict who is susceptible to financial exploitation. If that is true, we could put measures into place, like establishing conservatorships or setting up financial powers of attorney, to protect those people before it is too late.

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