Harvard Medical School Researchers Map Prevalence Of Gambling Disorders In North America

December 04, 1997

Research Shows That Gambling Disorders Affect A Growing Number Of Adults

BOSTON--December 4, 1997--A Harvard Medical School Division on Addictions study has found that the prevalence of gambling disorders among adults in the United States and Canada has increased during the past two decades.

Howard Shaffer, PhD, Harvard Medical School associate professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry, Matthew N. Hall, research assistant, and Joni Vander Bilt, MPH, instructor in public health, analyzed the data from 120 gambling prevalence studies of adult, adolescent, and special populations that were published between 1977 and 1997. Based on 18 studies published between 1977-1993, the researchers estimated that 0.84 percent of the adult population in the United States and Canada were affected by a gambling disorder. They projected, after reviewing 17 studies, that the prevalence rate for 1994-1997 grew to 1.29 percent of the adult population. Shaffer will present the study to the National Center for Responsible Gaming on December 9.

"While the majority of Americans and Canadians who gamble do so without experiencing any adverse consequences, our findings show that there is a growing percentage of the adult population who are at risk for gambling disorders," Shaffer says. "This is significant as gambling disorders have both social and economic costs."

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) classifies pathological gambling as an impulse control disorder. According to the APA, clinical symptoms of pathological gambling include a preoccupation with gambling, a need to gamble with significantly increasing amounts of money, committing illegal acts, such as forgery, fraud, and embezzlement, to finance gambling, and problems with family, job, or school due to gambling.

Shaffer says that the increase of legalized gambling during the past 20 years may factor into the increase in adult gambling disorders. "Adults in the general population are more sensitive to the social sanctions against illicit behaviors than adolescents, prison inmates, or patients struggling with major psychiatric illness. As gambling has become more socially accepted and accessible during the past two decades, the general adult population has started to gamble in increasing numbers. We are now beginning to witness a growth in gambling disorder among this group," Shaffer explains.

The researchers also found that gambling disorders were significantly more prevalent among adolescents than adults; males were more likely than females to experience gambling disorders; and individuals with concurrent psychiatric or substance abuse problems displayed much higher rates of disordered gambling than either adolescents or adults sampled from the general population. Shaffer notes, however, that during the past two decades there was no increase in the rate of gambling disorders among adolescents, or adults who were being treated for psychiatric disorders or substance abuse, or those who were in prison.

The study was funded by a grant from the National Center for Responsible Gaming.

--End--

Harvard Medical School

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