Older adults are more likely to believe false information when it's given to them, according to a new study that may help explain why the elderly are often the target of scam artists.

Researchers found elderly adults were 10 times more likely to "remember" false information as being true than younger adults when given misleading hints.

To make matters worse, older adults were not aware that they were wrong and didn't correctly remember the information.

Researchers say the results show that it's important for older adults to get things in writing, such as estimates for repair work, and refer to them when given a final price. Otherwise, they may falsely "remember" incorrect information as being true and be taken advantage of by scam artists who claim they quoted a higher price initially.

Elderly May Be Prone to Scams

In the study, which appears in the May issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, researchers examined whether the elderly were more likely to be misled and believe false information when presented with some misleading hints.

In a series of experiments, researchers compared the responses of a group of 24 older adults (average age 75) with those of a group of 24 younger adults (average age 19) to memory tests designed to mimic a scam situation.

Both groups studied lists of related word pairs, such as knee bone, and were then given a new list of word pairs. Some of the pairs in the second list were the same as the first, some were completely different, and some pairs contained only one of the words in the previous pair, but the pair also made sense, such as knee bend.

The results showed that older adults were 10 times more likely to falsely "remember" the incorrect pair containing the same first word as being the same as on the first list. Researchers say that would equate to falsely remembering an inflated estimate as being what was initially presented to them.

The study showed this effect held true even though older adults were given more time to study the word lists.

In addition, when the groups were told they had the option to "pass" when they were unsure of an answer, the elderly rarely used this option, which further reduced their accuracy.

"They did not know that they did not know," says researcher Larry Jacoby, PhD, of Washington University, in a news release.

However, Jacoby says some elderly may be more vulnerable to this memory problem than others, and there was a lot of variability among the elderly in this study.

But he says these results suggest that it's a good idea for the elderly to keep a written record of finances and other important items to protect themselves from scam artists.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Jacoby, L. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, May 2005; vol 134: pp 131-148. News release, American Psychological Association.