“Grandpa, do you know who this is? Please don’t tell anyone, but I’m in trouble and need money right away.” So begins one of the most common scams targeting older adults. For older men in particular, getting tricked by a con artist impersonating their grandchild over the phone — or any other financial scheme — could have lasting effects on their health.
RUSH researchers found that older men who reported being the victims of financial fraud saw their blood pressure rise — and remain elevated for years after the incident.
The implications could be significant, as more than 5 million older adults in the United States are victims of financial schemes, says Melissa Lamar, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist in the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center who led the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
How fraud could raise blood pressure in older men
“Being the victim of fraud can be traumatic, and we need to respect all that the trauma can do to a person beyond the tangible financial losses,” says Lamar, who is also a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Rush Medical College. This includes the possibility that older men may develop chronically elevated blood pressure, which is a risk factor for stroke, heart disease and other health problems.
Interestingly, researchers did not find the same association between fraud and elevated blood pressure in older women. Lamar believes that older men who are victims of financial fraud may develop higher blood pressure either directly or indirectly from negative emotions like stress, anger and anxiety caused by the incident.
“It’s possible that, compared with women, older men may not feel as comfortable talking about their emotions and may feel embarrassed about having been victimized,” she says. “Over time, not expressing these emotions could affect men’s high blood pressure.”
Earlier studies have shown elder fraud and exploitation are linked to increased hospitalizations, admission to nursing homes and lower survival rates, Lamar says. Older victims of financial fraud have also reported having higher blood pressure and other medical problems in some research. Lamar’s research team, which also included researchers from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, was the first to find that older men who were victims of fraud had elevated blood pressure as measured by an automated blood pressure machine. For up to 11 years, researchers tracked participants’ blood pressure over time, rather than relying on older adults to report if they had high blood pressure.
The study was conducted in more than 1,200 primarily non-Latino Whites approximately 80 years of age with high levels of education, suggesting they had a high socioeconomic status. None of the study participants had dementia. In the future, Lamar hopes to expand her team’s research to understand the health effects of fraud in a more racially, ethnically and economically diverse population.
How to avoid getting swindled
Worried about getting conned and what it might do to your bank account and your health over time? The National Council on Aging offers a variety of resources on how to avoid scams like phony lotteries, fake computer tech support, government impersonation scams, dubious investment strategies and other schemes. Lamar also offers this advice:
- Learn about the top five financial scams affecting older adults so you can spot the warning signs, like investments that offer “guaranteed returns” or “phishing” emails and texts that ask you for your credit card information.
- Be wary of COVID-19-related scams, such as companies offering free COVID-19 tests or vaccines in exchange for your personal data.
- If you have an older adult in your life, be sure to educate them about the latest phone and internet schemes.
If you have been the victim of fraud
You may be embarrassed that you fell for a scam, but you’re not alone. Take control of the situation by following these steps:
- Report the incident to your local police and your bank or credit card if money was stolen from your account. The National Council on Aging also recommends contacting Adult Protective Services for your state. Illinois residents can report fraud to the Illinois Department on Aging at (866) 800-1409.
- Tell your doctor, who may decide to monitor your blood pressure or other aspects of your health more closely, especially if you are an older man.
- Talk to someone about how you feel. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a therapist or psychologist — it can just be a friend or family member,” Lamar says.
Staying engaged with others, from your pastor to your postal carrier, can also help reduce stress and make you feel more connected as you cope with the trauma of being victimized. “Having those daily interactions helps you feel less alone,” Lamar says.
If you were the victim of fraud and would like help dealing with your emotions, a RUSH behavioral health professional is available to listen without judgment.