Much research shows that older people are a surprisingly upbeat group on the whole, despite undeniable physical declines and the increased sense of mortality. As we’ve reported, the sense of well-being tends to keep rising after age 50 in virtually every country, regardless of life circumstances.
No one knows for sure why many people have an increasingly positive outlook after midlife. Perhaps all that accumulated wisdom, an acceptance of life and its uncertainties, and even changes in brain chemistry play a role in focusing on the glass as being half full.
But there’s a flip side to accentuating the positive—often it can turn into cockeyed optimism.
Older people tend to be more trusting than younger adults and thus, statistics show, vulnerable to fraud. Recently a study from UCLA in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that older people are less likely to perceive signs of dishonesty and suggested a possible neurological explanation.
The researchers tested the reactions of older people (ages 55 to 84) and younger ones (20 to 42) to photos of faces selected to appear trustworthy, neutral or untrustworthy. The older subjects were much worse at recognizing signs of untrustworthiness, such as blatantly fake smiles and averted eyes, and thus were more apt to rate such faces as trustworthy (this is called a positivity bias). That is, they missed facial cues that would normally be easy to distinguish.
MRI scans done while the participants were shown the faces revealed that a brain region involved in collecting information and producing “gut feelings” like this and serving as a warning signal showed much less activation in the older group, which may explain why they were less wary.
It’s not certain whether this decreased brain activity in older people is the cause or the effect of their more trusting attitude. Also unclear is whether it plays as much of a role in evaluating nonfacial cues, such as those in telephone scams and shady advertising, though most likely it does.
If you’re over 65, try to keep your guard up and maintain a healthy skepticism, whether someone is trying to give you unsolicited financial advice, promote some unorthodox medical treatmen, or sell you an unproven dietary supplement.