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Does Age make us Wiser or more Gullible?

Update Date: Aug 16, 2012 12:53 PM EDT

New Research conducted by University of Iowa explains why your oddly gullible grandparents are the perfect target for practical jokes.

According to a report by ISU analysts, a specific area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which controls belief and doubt, deteriorates or is damaged, in varying degrees, in people 60 and older.

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

Practical Jokes are one thing (and when played on the elderly inappropriate) but stealing from the them is another. A report last year by insurer MetLife Inc. estimated the annual loss by victims of elder financial abuse at $2.9 billion.

 Researchers explain the elderly are so vulnerable because with age comes a disproportionate loss of the vmPC's structural integrity and functionality.

"Thus, we suggest that vulnerability to misleading information, outright deception and fraud in older adults is the specific result of a deficit in the doubt process that is mediated by the vmPFC."

In a study involving a total of 39 participants, 21 of whom had damage in the vmPC and 18 of whom with damage outside the prefrontal cortex, patients were shown ads with misleading information and were asked to gauge their believability and whether or not the individual would buy the product advertised.

According to IowaNow,

"the researchers found that the patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were roughly twice as likely to believe a given ad, even when given disclaimer information pointing out it was misleading. And, they were more likely to buy the item, regardless of whether misleading information had been corrected."

Natalie Denburg, assistant professor in neurology who devised the ad tests concludes that because participants who failed both believed the ads the most and had a higher purchase and "taken together, it makes them the most vulnerable to being deceived."

"The finding will enable doctors, caregivers, and relatives to be more understanding of decision making by the elderly," adds Daniel Tranel, neurology and psychology professor at the UI and corresponding author on the paper.

"Instead of saying, 'How would you do something 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."

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