4/29/07 – Older adults react more calmly to the prospect of financial loss

Brain scan study by Stanford researchers may help explain why adults over 65 feel more comfortable in their financial decision-making than younger people. And why they may be vulnerable to scams.

STANFORD — In a finding that could have important implications for understanding how older adults process and make financial decisions – and why they may be vulnerable to scams — Stanford University psychologist Gregory Samanez Larkin and colleagues have shown that older people respond far more calmly to the prospect of losing money than young people do.

The study appears in the June issue of Nature Neuroscience. The authors used a brain scanning technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI), which allows for real-time study of a subject’s brain activity as he or she is focused on a specific mental task. The study compared the responses of a group of adults aged 19-27, with those of another group comprised of adults over 65, to a simple challenge in which they were repeatedly told that their performance would result in them winning or losing small amounts of money. Both groups performed equally well in the challenges, and they both showed identical levels of positive arousal and excitement at the prospect of winning money. However, Samanez Larkin was intrigued to find that both the older subject’s self-reported reactions and their brain scans showed that older adults were significantly less fearful and nervous about the prospect of losing money than their younger counterparts.

Samanez Larkin believes that this difference in our emotional attitudes toward risk and the threat of loss as we age could have both positive and negative implications. It could, for example, help explain why older people are more commonly the victims of financial scams. They are positively aroused at the prospect of making money, while emotions and brain activity that might make a younger person more circumspect and concerned about the risk of losing money, are dampened. On the bright side, however, Samanez Larkin notes that it may be the older adults’ maturity and experience that explain their calmer posture toward the prospect of losing money. Having survived to an age in which they’ve likely won and lost money many times over the course of their lifetimes, they may be less likely to overreact or fear a given risk, thus calmly weighing options and feeling more comfortable about making decisions that cause considerable anxiety in younger people.

The specific regions of the brain studied were the ventral striatum, medial caudate, and anterior insula. There were no differences among the two groups studied when the subjects anticipated making money from the challenge; however, the younger group showed increased activity in the medial caudate and insula regions when they faced the prospect of losing money. The study participants’ own reports of their emotions mirrored the scan data, with younger people becoming uneasy and more agitated at the prospect of a loss than their older counterparts.

Co-authors on the paper include Sasha E. B. Gibbs, Kabir Khanna, Laura L. Carstensen (Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity), and Brian Knutson from Stanford, and Lisbeth Nielsen of the National Institute on Aging and National Institutes of Health.

The findings of this paper in Nature Neuroscience are consistent with previous research by Carstensen et al, showing that older adults pay more attention to and remember positive information than negative information. “This study not only improves our scientific understanding of the brain regions involved in choice, but it has practical implications,” says Carstensen. “Society is grappling with keeping an increasing number of older adults financially secure. A deep understanding of what influences the decision process of older people, particularly in the area of personal finance, can support a larger goal of helping older adults avoid scams and benefit from solid investments.”

The Stanford Center on Longevity is a non-traditional enterprise whose mission is to solve problems associated with long life. It does so by stimulating interdisciplinary research and initiating public conversations about transforming the culture so that life is improved for all ages.

3/10/07 – Global Aging Patterns Threaten the Economic Well-Being and Political Stability of Countries Throughout the World

Economist Adele Hayutin of Stanford’s Center on Longevity says startling demographic trends will impact not only the traditional issues of aging such as financial security and health, but also national security, trade policy, and economic prospects for all countries.

STANFORD, CA — Dramatic, unprecedented changes in global aging patterns will impact the economic well-being of millions of people and are fueling political instability and even armed conflicts around the world, according to an in-depth comparative analysis of worldwide demographic data called How Population Aging Differs Across Countries: A Briefing on Global Demographics.

According to the briefing’s author, Adele Hayutin, Ph.D., of the Stanford Center on Longevity, policymakers must understand the different aging profiles of nations if they are to develop effective plans across a broad array of concerns from social security, to immigration, trade and manufacturing, finance and defense. “Global aging is not a monolithic phenomenon,” notes Dr. Hayutin. “Our analysis shows that developed countries forced to fund the increasing costs of older populations with smaller workforces will be challenged to sustain their standard of living, while the youngest, least developed countries with rapidly growing populations but limited jobs may face political instability and emigration.” For the U.S., these worldwide trends raise questions about the strength of our traditional defense alliances, the future of our immigration policy, and forecasts for manufacturing and trade as an increasing number of countries—including China and Mexico—face shrinking workforces.

“Global aging is among the most pivotal changes of our time,” notes former Secretary of State George Shultz, who has written a preface to the report. “Stark demographic differences among nations will significantly shape almost every aspect of national and international life…The stakes are high.”

Specific trends identified in the report include:

•Japan and Germany, the second and third largest economies in the world, already have shrinking workforces; four more large economies will soon follow. The U.S. is an exception: due to immigration the U.S. has the competitive advantage of a growing supply of labor.

•Several Asian countries —China, South Korea, and Thailand, already have a declining number of children. Soon this will be the case in countries as diverse as Mexico, Iran, Algeria, and Vietnam.

•Many young, low-income countries with extremely high fertility rates, such as, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, DRC, Afghanistan, and Uganda, will see doubling and tripling of their populations by mid-century.

•High prevalence of youth, combined with rapid urban growth as people migrate in search of jobs, increases the risk of civil conflict and political instability. Most high-risk countries are located in Africa and the Middle East.
The tk-page briefing includes compelling graphics that show how specific trends diverge across countries.

By 2030, over half of all countries will have below-replacement fertility rates. Consequently, workforce growth will slow almost everywhere. The report includes powerful graphic representations of changing age structures— from pyramid to funnel for European countries; from pyramid to cube for the United States and Mexico.

““Quite suddenly, there are more people, across the world, living longer than ever before. This report shows the critical need for issues of longevity to be addressed across national boundaries,” says Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “Successful economic engagement between wealthy and poor countries is not a matter of philanthropy, but of national security.”

The Stanford Center on Longevity brings together more than 80 affiliated faculty researchers, with policymakers, business leaders, and the media to address the challenge of Global Aging in new and innovative ways.

10/5/2006 – The Sole of a Breakthrough

SCL Affiliate Tom Andriacchi has developed a special shoe that could literally shift medicine’s first line of defense against arthritis.

Forty million Americans suffer the pain and weakness of osteoarthritis, the deterioration of cartilage in the joint that long has been considered an aggravating and inevitable result of aging.

Now, the Stanford Center for Longevity’s Dr. Thomas Andriacchi and his team in the department of Bio-Mechanical Engineering are zeroing in on a novel, non-pharmaceutical, non-surgical approach to reducing pain and possibly inhibiting the progress of osteoarthritis in the knee. A new shoe design, indistinguishable from common sneakers but with a hidden secret, could represent an exciting new option for millions of people who currently rely on anti-inflammatory and steroid-based drugs that can have unwanted side effects. “This project represents precisely the kind of mission the Center was founded to support,” explains SCL Director Laura L. Carstensen. “We are determined to speed up the translation of research to practical solutions for an aging population anxious to remain active and fit for as long as possible.”

It’s all about sole. Specifically, a special design of composite material in a shoe that is firmer on one side than the other, prompting an ever so slight change in an individual’s gait. That gait shift moves pressure during walking away from painful, inflamed tissue in the knee. A study of more than 80 individuals between the ages of 50 and 70 with arthritis-related knee pain showed that wearing a prototype of this shoe at least four hours a day produced a noticeable decrease in knee pain, versus no change in individuals given an unmodified shoe to wear for the same period of time.

Andriacchi developed an early-stage development project with athletic shoe giant Nike to fund and test prototype shoes. In addition to the documented reduction in pain, Andriacchi, who has based the shoe’s design on research he’s been doing on arthritis for more than 20 years, says there is reason to believe that the gait change prompted by use of the shoe could actually slow the progression of osteoarthritis in the joint. Studies are underway now using magnetic resonance imaging to monitor physical changes in the knees of subjects wearing the shoe every day, over time.

The project has also drawn the interest of a team of students from the Graduate School of Business who have designed a potential business around the Andriacchi shoe.. They are exploring a number of the marketing issues associated with fine-tuning the finished product, from design to cost to target market. It is clear that a sneaker format is a straightforward and effective design to implement the shoe’s benefits, for example, but Andriacchi says his team is consulting with shoe designers to explore whether it could be incorporated into other shoe designs to fit a diversity of tastes and lifestyles. In the lab, researchers are determining whether the shoe can actually stop arthritis progression in its tracks. That feature could make the shoe an important aid to athletes, for example, who may have suffered injuries that make them more susceptible to early-onset arthritis.

Clearly, Andriacchi, his team, and the SCL feel a keen sense of urgency in developing this product. “By 2020, the number of people with osteoarthritis will rise to 59 million and it’s probably the major cause of people over 50 losing the ability to function in a normal array of activities,” Andriacchi explains. Adds Steve Goldband, Director of Private Sector Initiatives at SCL, “We are excited about the potential of this project to make an important contribution to the well-being of older adults. In this case, a viable commercial strategy will be crucial.”