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updated 8/16/2012 4:45:28 PM ET 2012-08-16T20:45:28

The elderly are recognized as being vulnerable to fraud. A study last year found that American seniors lost at least $2.9 billion to financial exploitation in 2010, and two months ago, the newly established Consumer Financial Protection Bureau launched an inquiry to figure out how to best protect the elderly from scams.

But what makes seniors more likely to fall for frauds? New research points to a specific part of their aging brains.

The new study is based on a small sample and its authors acknowledge that further research is needed. But their preliminary evidence indicates that a damaged ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) — a part of the brain that controls belief and doubt, and begins to deteriorate around age 60 — might be to blame for what makes some people more gullible than others.

"The current study provides the first direct evidence beyond anecdotal reports that damage to the vmPFC ( ventromedial prefrontal cortex ) increases credulity," the researchers wrote in the paper appearing in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. "Indeed, this specific deficit may explain why highly intelligent vmPFC patients can fall victim to seemingly obvious fraud schemes."

In the study, researchers at the University of Iowa recruited 18 people with damage to the vmPFC and 21 patients with brain damage outside the prefrontal cortex, as well as a control group of subjects without any brain damage. The researchers showed them advertisements that mimic ones flagged as deceptive by the Federal Trade Commission and then asked each to gauge how much he or she believed the misleading ad, a statement from the University of Iowa explained.

Patients with damage to the vmPFC were about twice as likely as the other participants to fall for a given ad, even when a disclaimer pointed out it was misleading, the researchers said.

"Behaviorally, they fail the test to the greatest extent," researcher Natalie Denburg said in the UI statement. "They believe the ads the most, and they demonstrate the highest purchase intention. Taken together, it makes them the most vulnerable to being deceived."

The researchers say their findings might help doctors, caregivers and relatives to be more understanding and protective of seniors' decision-making.

"Instead of saying, 'How would you do something [so] silly and transparently stupid?' people may have a better appreciation of the fact that older people have lost the biological mechanism that allows them to see the disadvantageous nature of their decisions," Daniel Tranel, another researcher involved in the study, said in the statement.

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