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Who is at risk for gambling addiction?

Several studies show that gambling, like substance use, may have certain genetic origins that predispose a person to becoming addicted. These include:

  • People with lower levels of serotonin.
  • People with a more impulsive nature.
  • People who seek out activities that provide immediate rewards.
  • People who tend not to consider long-term consequences of actions.

Some studies show that people who become addicted to gambling may actually produce lower levels of serotonin, which is associated with a general lack of interest in activities or a lack of pleasure derived from most activities (known as anhedonia in the mental health community). Operating at this baseline state may encourage a person to engage in activities that increase the amount of serotonin in the brain, leading to feelings of happiness and pleasure that others may feel without the added stimulus.

Other studies show that those who become addicted to gambling or substances are genetically predisposed to make more impulsive decisions and seek activities that provide immediate reward. These studies provide evidence that the parts of the brain that control inhibition and allow a person to think through potential consequences and rewards for certain actions may be under-active, leading to impulsivity and reward-seeking.

Like any addiction, pathological gambling is a complex disorder. Many factors can contribute to its development. Following are some of the most salient risk factors that can increase one’s vulnerability to a gambling addiction:

Age

Research suggests that individuals under the age of 35 may be more prone to developing a gambling addiction. One of the most likely reasons for this is the fact that younger individuals are more likely to seek out new sensations and act impulsively than their older counterparts.

Although younger folks tend to have an increased risk for compulsive gambling, older individuals are also at risk. Senior gamblers are often more likely to play in order to relieve unwanted feelings such as loneliness or anxiety. Additionally, seniors now have wider access to wagering through gambling websites and apps, providing more opportunity for an addiction to develop, right from the comfort of home. Health plays a role in compulsive gambling among older individuals as well. Dementia and other types of cognitive impairment make it difficult for older seniors to make reasonable decisions when wagering.

Furthermore, casinos and licensed gaming facilities have been known to market perks specifically toward older gamblers. For example, many places offer free transportation, discounted meals, or free drinks to seniors, all of which are appealing – especially to those on a fixed income. Organized bus trips for seniors, in particular, can be very appealing to those who’ve become socially isolated or lost a spouse to death or divorce. The trips offer entertainment and the fellowship of other seniors.

Gender

While it’s not unusual to view gambling addiction as a problem that primarily impacts men, many women struggle with it as well. Experts estimate that 1 out of every 3 gambling addicts is a member of the fairer sex. Although women develop the addiction at somewhat lower rates than men, they appear more likely to do so later in life than male addicts.

It’s critical for individuals, families, and health care professionals to recognize and address this condition in women. Research suggests that women become addicted to gambling quickly; often within a year from when they first start placing bets. In contrast, it takes men an average of four years to develop a gambling addiction. This highlights the importance of getting a woman with gambling problems into treatment as soon as possible.

Mental Health Issues

The presence of certain psychiatric disorders also boosts the risk for a gambling addiction. It’s not uncommon for compulsive gamblers to suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. For example, individuals with bipolar disorder often engage in high risk behaviors during manic or hypomanic episodes. Gambling would certainly fall into this category, especially for someone whose judgment is impaired and who’s highly impulsive. Manic individuals are more vulnerable to becoming addicted to the euphoria and excitement that gambling provides. Depressive episodes can make them vulnerable to using gambling as a form of distraction and a way to self-medicate painful emotions.

Personality Traits

Specific personality traits have been connected to an increased risk for compulsive gambling. Researchers discovered that pathological gamblers tend to be more impulsive by nature. Furthermore, one 30-year study found that participants with an “under-controlled” temperament at age three were more than twice as likely to have a gambling disorder as adults than those who had been considered “well-adjusted” as children.

Family History

As with many other mental health disorders, including depression and substance abuse, gambling addiction may also have a genetic element. One study found that when one identical twin has a gambling addiction, the other twin is more likely to develop it as well. This risk was higher among identical twins than fraternal twins.

In addition to genetics, family environment can also contribute to the development of a gambling addiction. For example, children of gambling addicts are often exposed to wagering and other types of gambling activity at an early age. Researchers discovered that teenagers who had received scratch-off lottery tickets as gifts were more likely to report symptoms of problem gambling later in life. Such a gift sends the message that gambling is acceptable. This type of home environment can promote gambling behavior in children and adolescents.

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