Tag Archives: financial exploitation


Stephen Ceci awarded APA's highest honor for developmental psychology

Stephen Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology in the Department of Human Development, will receive the American Psychological Associations’ G. Stanley Hall award for distinguished contributions to developmental science at APA’s August 2018 meeting in San Francisco.

PRYDE forum focuses on youth and social media

More than 50 Cornell Cooperative Extension educators and 4-H program leaders, youth service providers from community agencies and Cornell faculty members discussed productive social media use and youth development.

The lasting effects of childhood poverty

Gary Evans is interviewed about his research on the influence of childhood poverty on biology, health, and development.

The "Diana Effect" - How Princess Diana helped many seek help for bulimia

On the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's death, Jane Mendle credits Diana with helping remove the stigma of mental illness and bulimia.

Aging brains make seniors vulnerable to financial scams

SprengIn a new paper, Nathan Spreng reports that some seniors are more at risk than others to scams because of age-related changes in their brains.


Lindsay Dower - Outstanding Senior Award 2017

Lindsay Dower ‘17 spent her four years at Cornell working to improve the lives of both those within the College of Human Ecology and in the broader Ithaca community, truly embodying the mission of the college.


Valerie Reyna - member of the National Academy of Medicine



Reprinted from CBS News' Healthday, April 14, 2017

by Maureen Salamon

A pair of key differences in the brain may help distinguish which seniors are at risk of falling prey to financial scams, a small new study suggests.

The first-of-its-kind study found a biological basis -- rather than poor decision-making skills -- underlying financial exploitation in the elderly. These findings might lead to a way to predict which seniors are susceptible to scams, the researchers said.

Such scams affect about 5 percent of older adults after age 60, said study author Nathan Spreng. He’s director of Cornell University’s Laboratory of Brain and Cognition.


Nathan Spreng

“We suspect these are brain changes that occurred prior to [seniors] being exploited that rendered them vulnerable to exploitation... It could have been something that emerged as they were aging,” Spreng said.

“We think it’s probably more of an age-related change to the brain,” he added. “We don’t necessarily think this is a lifelong brain difference.”

About 45 million Americans were age 65 and older in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The true incidence of financial scams in this age group is probably underestimated. Spreng said that many older adults are unaware that they were scammed or unwilling to report being exploited.

Prior research indicated that family members are the most common financial abusers of seniors. In Spreng’s study, a grandson continued to steal even after being confronted by the study participant. In other examples, a daughter charged $2,000 to a study participant’s account without permission, and a son’s girlfriend borrowed $4,000 and never paid it back.

Spreng and his team evaluated 13 older adults who had been robbed by family members or neighbors, or scammed online or by phone. The researchers compared that group to 13 peers who’d been exposed to a potentially exploitative scheme, but recognized and avoided it.

Forty-five behavioral tests were performed on both groups to measure aspects such as memory, personality, financial reasoning, and the ability to pay attention to information and evaluate it. Additionally, MRI scans were performed on the participants’ brains.

The only behavioral difference that emerged between the groups was more anger and hostility in those who’d been scammed. But the brain images were more telling: Exploited seniors showed more shrinkage and less connectivity in two key areas of the brain.

One brain region, known as the anterior insula, signals when something significant is happening. This area was significantly reduced in the exploited group of seniors, which suggests their brains weren’t signaling that they faced a risky situation, according to the study authors.

The other brain region, called the medial prefrontal cortex, helps read social cues, such as people’s intentions. The scammed seniors also showed more shrinkage and fewer neural connections in this area, the findings showed.

The researchers also found the networks of both affected brain regions were more connected to each other. This suggests the combination of effects might leave those seniors more vulnerable to scams.

S. Duke Han is a spokesperson for the American Federation for Aging Research. He said this study’s results are preliminary because of the small number of people studied.

“There also could be other reasons for why these brain imaging differences might be seen -- there may be differences in cardiovascular health, nutrition or another variable not accounted for, and this isn’t a large enough study to address those,” said Han.

Han and Spreng agreed that studying financial scams in the elderly is a difficult task.

“The topic can be seen as very embarrassing for older adults who become the victims of financial exploitation, so it’s hard to get them to agree to be recruited for this type of research,” Han said.

Larger studies are needed to confirm these findings and perhaps identify markers -- both biological and behavioral -- to identify who’s most at risk of scams, Spreng said.

“Overall, our objective is to help with identifying people who may be vulnerable but don’t know it, and help build up additional protections for them,” Spreng said.

“The consequences are just so devastating for people’s well-being and quality of life and, ultimately, their health when they lose their life savings. We’re trying to tackle this problem as a biological issue,” Spreng said.

Reprinted from the Weill Cornell Medicine Newsroom, August 1, 2016

Financial exploitation of older people by those who should be protecting them results in devastating health, emotional and psychological consequences. A group of international elder abuse experts met in June at Weill Cornell Medicine to map out a strategy for conducting research on this problem in low and middle income countries.

The meeting, organized by Dr. Mark Lachs, co-chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine and the Irene F. and I. Roy Psaty Distinguished Professor of Clinical Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Dr. Karl Pillemer, director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University, brought together experts from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Argentina.


Karl Pillemer, Director of the BCTR

"Over the last few years, studies have found financial abuse and exploitation of older people to be extremely prevalent and extremely harmful for older people," said Dr. Pillemer, who is also a professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. "These studies have mostly been done in the United States, England, and other high income countries, but very little is known about how this problem plays out in low-income countries. Our goal was to bring together research internationally and comparatively to try to understand this problem."

"This issue is an interesting integration of sociology, medicine, economics and geopolitics," said Dr. Lachs, who is director of Weill Cornell Medicine's Center for Aging Research and Clinical Care and director of geriatrics for the New York-Presbyterian Health System. "There has been growing interest here in the United States on financial vulnerability of older people, but I'm unaware of an international group that is focused on this."

One consequence of older people who are being financially exploited is that they cannot meet their own health needs. There are also psychological and emotional consequences because some older people live in fear of relatives who may be exploiting them and may give away much needed pensions to spouses, adult children, and other extended family members.

Elder experts

Elder experts Top (from left): Chelsie Burchett, Bridget Penhale, Karl Pillemer, Janey Peterson, Kendon Conrad, Mark Lachs, Natal Ayiga, Steve Gresham. Bottom (from left): Peter Lloyd-Sherlock, David Burnes, Nelida Redondo.

According to Dr. Pillemer, based on available evidence, 5 to 10 percent of older people globally may experience some kind of financial exploitation. Exploitation can take different forms. In high-income countries, like the United States, the abuse may encompass theft, misuse of power of attorney or denying access to funds. In low-income regions, financial exploitation results from abuse of local laws and cultural norms. For example, in some South American countries, the law requires that children receive the parents’ dwelling, resulting in children moving parents into nursing homes in order to obtain the house. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, women may be accused of witchcraft in order to seize their property or gain access to their funds.

Government pensions in low-income countries have become a source of income for older people, which puts them at risk for financial exploitation. However, researchers need to be sensitive to local cultural norms in their conduct of research and analysis of data so governments are not hesitant to provide much needed income to older people, according to Dr. Lachs.

"In some of the countries there's a cultural expectation that if the older person has a pension it will be shared with other family members," Dr. Lachs said. "Whereas in my practice, if a patient tells me that a child is asking for some of their pension, it raises the specter of the potential for financial exploitation."

The group, Dr. Pillemer said, concluded that there's a desperate need for new scientific knowledge about the extent, causes and consequences of this problem, as well as a need to understand how the problem of financial exploitation is the same across countries, and how it differs. The group is now working on a white paper to make the case for comparative research on financial exploitation of older people.

"That's important for a very critical reason: By looking at the dynamics of financial abuse in different countries, we can understand how policies affect both how much abuse occurs and how to deal with it," Dr. Pillemer said.

In addition to Dr. Pillemer and Dr. Lachs, attendees of the meeting were:

  • Bridget Penhale, Reader in Mental Health, University of East Anglia, UK;
  • Peter Lloyd-Sherlock, Professor of Social Policy and International Development, University of East Anglia, UK;
  • Steve Gresham, Executive Vice President, Private Client Group, Fidelity Investments, and Adjunct Lecturer in International and Public Affairs, Watson Institute, Brown University;
  • David Burnes, Assistant Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto;
  • Nelida Redondo, Senior Researcher, Universidad Isalud, Argentina;
  • Natal Ayiga, North-West University, South Africa;
  • Janey Peterson, Associate Professor of Clinical Epidemiology in Medicine, Integrative Medicine and Cardiothoracic Surgery, Weill Cornell Medicine; and
  • Ken Conrad, Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois at Chicago.

The meeting was supported by the Elbrun & Peter Kimmelman Family Foundation, Inc.