Problem gambling might have a family link, according to a new study.

The study included 31 pathological gamblers and 193 of their close adult relatives. For comparison, 31 people without gambling problems also took part, along with 142 of their close adult relatives.

Problem gamblers’ relatives were more likely to have ever had a gambling problem, including pathological gambling, report Donald Black, MD, and colleagues. Black works in the University of Iowa’s psychiatry department.

The study, published online in Psychiatry Research, was funded by the National Center for Responsible Gaming, whose funders include the casino gaming industry.

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Pathological gambling goes way beyond casual wagers on, say, the NCAA basketball championship. Instead, it’s a psychiatric disorder than can wreck finances, stress relationships, create legal problems, and even lead to suicide, write Black and colleagues.

“What we find with pathological gamblers is that they have this uncontrollable urge to gamble,” Black says in a University of Iowa news release. “Ideally, it would be nice to discover a drug that would reliably interrupt that urge.”

Most pathological gamblers in Black’s study had had gambling problems for more than a decade. Men crossed the line into pathological gambling around age 34, on average, compared with age 39 for women.

More than half of the pathological gamblers were single, divorced, or widowed -- far more than in the comparison group.

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Family Patterns

All relatives studied were at least 18 years old. They were interviewed in person or by phone.

Among pathological gamblers’ relatives, 8 percent had ever been pathological gamblers and 12 percent had ever had any gambling problem, the study shows.

Gambling problems were much rarer among relatives of people who weren’t pathological gamblers. In that group, 2 percent had ever been problem gamblers and 3.5 percent had ever had a gambling problem, Black’s team reports.

The researchers also found that alcohol disorders and substance abuse disorders were also more common among pathological gamblers’ relatives.

“The cause of pathological gambling is unknown,” write Black and colleagues. They will do a larger study on pathological gambling in families, the news release states.

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By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Black, D. Psychiatry Research, Feb. 24, 2006; online edition. News release, University of Iowa.