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Age When Gambling Began, Not Gender, Best Predictor for Gambling Disorder

People with gambling disorder have a non-substance-based behavioral addiction that manifests as seriously dysfunctional participation in at least one type of gambling activity. Current research indicates that, among those individuals seeking treatment for their condition, women typically develop gambling problems in a pattern that’s distinctly different from the pattern usually found in men. In a study scheduled for publication in 2014 in the journal Addiction, a team of American and Australian researchers looked for similar gender-based differences in affected individuals who have not yet sought treatment for their dysfunctional gambling behaviors.

Behavioral Addiction

Behavioral addiction is one of several terms now used to describe the damaging brain and behavioral changes that occur in some people who repeatedly seek out involvement in such pleasure-producing activities as having sex, going shopping and eating high-fat or high-sugar foods. Other terms for the same condition include process addiction and addictive disorder (the official term used by the prestigious and highly influential American Psychiatric Association). Researchers and doctors have long known that repeated involvement in normally harmless, pleasurable activities leads to significant problems in certain individuals. However, until recently, these problems were not viewed as equal in kind or in seriousness to the problems associated with substance addiction. Under the influence of a steady stream of scientific evidence, this viewpoint has changed, and the consensus in the medical and research communities now acknowledges the core similarities between substance addiction and non-substance-related behavioral addiction.

Gambling Disorder

Gambling disorder is currently the only addictive disorder with clearly defined diagnostic guidelines issued by the American Psychiatric Association. Potential symptoms in affected individuals include the use of increasingly risky gambling behavior as a source of thrills or excitement, the tendency to mentally “relive” previous gambling episodes while doing other things, loss of control over the frequency or duration of gambling participation, use of gambling to dodge unpleasant emotions or situations, establishment of gambling as a main life priority, concealment of gambling activity from others and the need to borrow money from others in order to continue gambling participation. Most people develop one or more of these symptoms fairly slowly over time rather than suddenly falling into a dysfunctional pattern of gambling-related behavior. Depending on the individual, addictive behavior may be associated with just one form of gambling or with multiple forms of gambling. While some untreated people go through periods when they reduce their gambling participation or don’t gamble at all, problems typically recur unless help is sought from a knowledgeable professional.

Differences in Men and Women

Previous research has shown that women who seek treatment for gambling disorder typically develop serious gambling problems later in life than men seeking treatment for the condition. When problems arise, women seeking treatment also tend to transition from the initial stages of dysfunctional gambling to diagnosable gambling disorder considerably more rapidly than their male counterparts. In the study scheduled for publication in Addiction, researchers from two U.S. institutions and two Australian institutions used an examination of 4,663 Australian men and women to see if these same gender-based differences occur in the wider population of potentially affected individuals who have not received treatment for any gambling-related issues. All of the study participants underwent extensive phone interviews designed to detect the presence of diagnosable gambling problems. Examples of the information gathered during these interviews include each person’s age at the time of initial involvement in various gambling activities and each person’s preferred types of gambling, as well as each person’s history of antisocial conduct and history of diagnosable major depressive disorder (i.e., major depression) and/or diagnosable alcoholism.   After completing an analysis of the supplied information, the researchers concluded that men in the general population actually experience a more rapid transition than women between the first signs of dysfunctional gambling behavior and the onset of diagnosable gambling disorder. This finding holds true even when all secondary factors under consideration are taken into account. Among both men and women, the single strongest influence on a future gambling disorder diagnosis is apparently the age at which an individual gets involved in gambling. Essentially, a younger age of onset for gambling participation increases the odds for a later diagnosis of gambling problems. All told, the study’s authors believe their findings for the general population do not support the existence of a more rapid transition to gambling disorder in women.

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