The Finance, Cognition, and Health in Elders Study: Toward Preventing Financial Exploitation of Older Adults

By Gali H. Weissberger and S. Duke Han

Why is financial exploitation so common in the elderly population? Why do some older adults fare better than others when making financial decisions? What factors protect or place one at greater risk of being financially exploited? These are just some of the questions that a multidisciplinary team of investigators hope to answer through the Finance, Cognition, and Health in Elders Study (FINCHES) being carried out through USC’s Department of Family Medicine.

The first step towards addressing a problem is to understand it. The goal of FINCHES is to understand brain and behavior relationships associated with financial decision making and financial exploitation. We are actively recruiting older adults who have been financially exploited as well as those who have not, or those have successfully avoided it. By comparing these groups of individuals across a variety of factors, information regarding what factors may increase one’s risk of financial exploitation can be gleaned.

Four primary considerations of FINCHES are:

1. Thinking skills: Subtle cognitive decline is a normal aspect of healthy aging, and steeper declines are observed in dementing conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Similarly, impaired decision making is observed in individuals at risk for, or who have Alzheimer’s disease. Does declining cognition in older age contribute to poorer decision making and ultimately increased rates of financial exploitation in older adults? Research suggests that this may be the case, with studies reporting correlations between poor decision making and reduced cognitive skills. However, FINCHES is one of the first studies to investigate differences in thinking between cognitively intact older adults who have already been financially exploited and those who have not. By doing so, investigators will be able to identify whether specific thinking skills are subtly lower in those who have been exploited versus those who have not. Will there be reduced memory performance in exploited older adults? Will they have more difficulty with executive functions such as multi-tasking, abstract thinking, and task-switching? Will language skills be reduced when compared to non-exploited peers? These questions can be answered through the extensive cognitive tests administered in FINCHES.

2. Emotions: Factors such as social isolation, loneliness, depression, and anxiety may make a person more vulnerable to financial exploitation. These are all factors that become relevant in older age, as new and complex issues arise such as grappling with retirement, the death of a spouse or close friend, or changes to physical health. Could social isolation and feelings of loneliness put a person at greater risk of being exploited? Does anxiety regarding financial decisions reduce one’s risk? Do significant life changes make decision making more challenging? These are questions that FINCHES is working to answer by using novel tools to measure emotional and physiological responses, such as facial gesture processing software and galvanic skin response measurements.

3. Behavioral Economics: How people make financial decisions can depend on a number of specific factors. The timing or delay of a monetary amount can sometimes change the value of that amount in the eyes of an older adult. How risky a situation is deemed might impact how an older adult decides to use money. The level of trust one has of another in a given monetary situation could be an important factor. The field of behavioral economics has developed tools to consider how these factors impact decision making in a systematic way; however, these have seldom been used among older adults. These tools are leveraged in FINCHES to help us understand what factors may lead to (or protect against) financial exploitation.

4. Brain Relationships: It can be argued that all behavior has an underlying neural signature. What is the neural signature of poor financial decision making? Do people who were financially exploited show differences in their brains? Through the FINCHES study, investigators will answer these questions by looking at both structural and functional differences in the brains of those who have been financially exploited and those who have not. Are there certain brain regions that are smaller in those who have been exploited? Are the connections between brain regions different between groups? Participants of FINCHES have their brains scanned in a powerful MRI machine so that we can get one step closer to answering these questions.

There are many complex relationships that investigators hope to explore through FINCHES. The Elder Justice Foundation (www.elderjusticefoundation.org) has graciously provided early support for our study, and we are in the process of applying for support from the National Institutes of Health to continue and expand our study. These explorations would not be possible without the help of individuals who have contributed their time and effort to participating in the study. It is through their generosity that FINCHES investigators are able to get one step closer to understanding and addressing the growing societal crisis of financial exploitation of older adults.

To Learn more about this study you may contact HanResearchLab@gmail.com

Dr. Gali Weissberger is a USC postdoctoral fellow in the Han Research Laboratory(www.hanresearchlab.com). Dr. Duke Han is the Primary Investigator of FINCHES, Director of Neuropsychology in Family Medicine, and an Associate Professor of Family Medicine, Neurology, Psychology, and Gerontology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.


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Special Thanks to Judith D. Tamkin

We are sincerely appreciative to Judith D. Tamkin for her gift to help establish the USC Center on Elder Mistreatment’s website. Her deep and personal commitment to eradicating elder abuse is helping to reshape our understanding of elder abuse and ultimately save innumerable older adults from abuse and neglect.