Do We Trust More As We Age?

Financial exploitation of seniors—from telemarketing scams to identity theft, fake check scams and home repair fraud—costs an estimated $3 billion annually, and is becoming epidemic according to an official at the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

A recent study funded by the National Institute on Aging suggests age-related changes in the brain make it harder to detect suspicious body language and other warning signs that people may be untrustworthy.

Researchers at UCLA set out to explore whether older adults perceive facial cues related to trustworthiness differently from younger adults. The researchers showed photographs of faces selected to look trustworthy, neutral or untrustworthy to a group of 119 older adults (ages 55 to 84) and 24 younger adults (ages 20 to 42). Signs of untrustworthiness included averted eyes, insincere smiles and a backward tilt of the head. The participants were asked to rate each face based on how trustworthy or approachable it seemed.

Results of the study show that older adults were significantly more likely than the younger ones to rate untrustworthy faces as trustworthy, and to miss facial cues that are usually easily distinguished.

A smaller group of participants performed the same task while the scientists used functional MRI to look at changes in brain activity. The functional MRI scans revealed significant differences in brain activity between the age groups. An area known as the anterior insula, which is associated with “gut feelings,” became more active in the younger subjects at the sight of an untrustworthy face. Older subjects, however, showed little to no activation in this area. This supports other research that found that older adults have a diminished ability to process negative stimuli compared with younger adults, resulting in a false sense of well being.

Future research is needed to determine whether this is because older adults are paying less attention to important social signals or whether their brains are somehow unable to process those signals.

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