Experts think it may now be possible to identify vulnerable people who are most susceptible to being exploited by unscrupulous relatives and conmen so they can be better protected.
Researchers have discovered the brains of older people who have lost large amounts of money in financial scams have distinct differences in two key parts of their brains.
These brain regions are used to help us spot suspicious situations and untrustworthy people, but they were smaller and did not function properly in elderly people who had been exploited.
This may explain why some old people who appear to otherwise have their wits about them can unexpectedly fall victim to those looking to rip them off.
Dr Nathan Spreng, a cognitive scientist at Cornell University in Ithica, New York who led the study, said his team are now developing an assessment tool to identify people at risk of fraud.
He said: ‘Eventually we hope to develop a behavioural assessment tool that could be included as part of standard geriatric testing.
‘The goal would be to be able to identify people at risk and put the necessary financial protections in place before an older adult gets exploited.’
Up to half of over 65-year-olds in the UK have been targeted by fraudsters, according to a recent survey by Age UK and they estimate up to half a million older people have lost money in this way.
They warn that recent changes to pensions that allow retirees to withdraw their money as a lump sum makes this sort of crime an even greater risk.
Other academic studies have suggested up to one in 20 elderly people can be expected to suffer some sort of financial exploitation.
It has raised calls for better protections to be put in place to help older people, but identifying those most at risk has proved difficult.
In the latest study, which is published in the Journals of Gerontology, Dr Spreng and his colleagues examined the brains of 26 people over the age of 60 years old.
Half of them had suffered financial exploitation, including one whose son’s girlfriend borrowed £3,100 and never paid it back.
Another participant’s daughter had charged £1,550 to her account without permission while a third had money stolen by her grandson, who continued even after she confronted him.
Dr Spring and his team found the cortex in two brain regions - the anterior insula and the superior temporal sulcus - were thinner in those who had been scammed.
The neurological connections within the two regions was also greatly reduced, suggesting the communication needed to draw accurate conclusions about trustworthiness was impeded.
The anterior insular is involved in detecting meaningful information in the environment around us, including identifying potential threats.
The superior temporal region of the brain is involved in interpreting information from social interactions, such as facial expressions and tone of voice.
Dr Spreng said it was still unclear why only some people seemed to suffer these brain changes while others did not.
He said: ‘We are unable to determine whether these results are attributable to brain changes that occur as part of the wide variability in normal aging or are attributable to specific life events.’
But he said the research could also help to reduce the stigma and embarrassment that victims of such crimes often feel.
He said: ‘Often people feel embarrassed to report that they have been exploited.
‘If our findings are replicated in larger studies, it would provide important evidence to demonstrate that financial exploitation is not the result of being careless or gullible.
‘Rather, it may be attributable to specific brain changes that occur as part of the normal aging process. We need to start treating this as a medical problem and not a societal one.’
Mervyn Kohler, a special adviser at Age UK, said: ‘The idea that anyone would deliberately target an older person for the purpose of fraud is so abhorrent that most of us prefer never to think about it.
‘Worryingly, there is every reason to suppose the threat to older people is increasing.
‘This research will be very interesting and timely as it will help to identify those most and risk so that appropriate support is in place should the situation arise.
‘As well as the obvious financial impact of fraud on older people, the psychological impact can be debilitating and long lasting leading to stress, anxiety and depression.’
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Could brain scans spot elderly people at risk of fraud before they are even targeted by conmen?