Sometimes I Feel Like a Piece of Bologna

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Aging Hurts Decision Making

I’ve been reporting a lot about Medicare scams hitting the elderly. Now a New York Times article reports on a study that confirms what unscrupulous con artists already knew--the elderly are a tempting target. Researchers have confirmed that as they grow older, even people who seem perfectly on top of things may have trouble making good decisions.

The researchers based their findings on a series of tests given to two groups of healthy people, one ages 26 to 55, the other 56 to 85. The goal was to see how well the older volunteers used the decision making skills often demanded in real life for things like investments, insurance and estate planning.

“Such decisions would be a challenge even for young adults,” the researchers note in the current Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. But when age is combined with the today’s shady marketing schemes, the challenge becomes even greater.

Even someone with high intellect and good memory may undergo changes in the prefrontal part of the brain that affects behavior. “The first manifestation of this cognitive decline may be exercising poor judgment and decision making in many important real-life matters,” the study said.

The researchers, led by Natalie L. Denburg of the University of Iowa, used a gambling-style test in which people draw from four different decks of cards. Two decks give short-term rewards but long-term losses. The other two decks do the opposite. Most people draw from the bad decks first and then switch. But many of the older participants stuck with the bad decks.

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