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Is Gambling Addiction Genetic?

As the online gambling industry has grown, so too have concerns about problem gambling. The immediacy offered by online gambling has caused problems for many, and while the Government and the UK Gambling Commission try to rally and find ways to protect vulnerable gamblers as well as preventing gambling related harm, questions about what causes gambling addiction have become commonplace.One of biggest questions is whether there is a genetic element to gambling addiction, whether some people are predisposed to having issues with gambling due to their genes.

The 2010 Study

In 2010, researchers from the University of Missouri teamed up with researches from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research to carry out research funded by the US National Institutes of Health, and the resulting study was published in the peer reviewed Archives of General Psychiatry.The research initially focused around women, as the researchers claimed that nearly half of those undergoing treatment for gambling addiction were women, the study set out to discover whether the causes of gambling addiction in women different from men.As is often the case with studies that focus on families (previous studies had suggested a family link in gambling addicts) this was a cross-sectional twin study, using 4,764 participants who had recently taken part in the Australian Twin Register cohort II study.The sample group was split, 57% female and 43% male, with 867 identical twin pairs, and 1,008 non-identical twins, as well as 1,014 twins from incomplete pairs, 304 having an identical twin, and 710 having a non-identical twin.The use of monozygotic (identical) and dizygotic (non-identical) twins allowed for the researchers to assess correlations, as identical twins share genes, whereas their non-identical counterparts do not.Further criteria were given to any participants in the study who stated they gambled at least five times a year, with 77.5% of the subjects being above this threshold.Participants were also screened for symptoms of mania, which can make somebody more likely to gamble. This was to ensure that there was not a mental health aspect to any participants in the study diagnosed as suffering from gambling addiction.The researchers needed to assess the similarity in the environment of each pair of twins, and used telephone interviews conducted a few years earlier as part of the previous study for this. Questions included whether twins had been in the same primary and high school classes, dressed alike, whether they shared friends, and how often they contacted each other.

The Results

The research found that while gambling regularly was a common trait across the twins, only 2.2% classified as pathological gamblers.These traits were more frequent in the male participants, with 3.4% classified as pathological gamblers, against 1.2% of female subjects.When it came to the chances of genetic influence, the researchers calculated a score between 0 and 1 (with 0 being no correlation and 1 being strong correlation) for the likelihood of each of the twins being problem gamblers.With non-identical twins, there was a score of 0.21 for both male and female twins. Identical twins scored higher, with female Monozygotic twins scoring 0.55, slightly higher than the 0.49 score given to male identical twins.All psychiatric evaluations were made using DSM-IV, which is an established list of ten symptoms of pathological gambling.The researchers estimated a 49% chance of genetic influence when a participant had one DSM-IV symptom, while those with three or more symptoms had a 58% chance of these being inherited. Five or more symptoms had a 40% chance of being inherited.The research also found that there was no association between participants who shared an environment and were both pathological gamblers, meaning there is unlikely to be any strong environmental factors at play.As a result, the study concluded that the research had proven, for the first time, that genes were equally important when it came to the causes of gambling addiction in women as they were in men, adding that there was more to learn:“[The] discovery of specific genes and environments involved in the development of disordered gambling remains an important direction for future research.”

Issues with the research

As with the majority of studies, while this research does shed light on possibilities, it does not outright prove its suggestions, for many reasons.Firstly, this research was carried out exclusively on the Australian population, and there is no way to know whether the study can be translated to the global population, or specific populations in other countries.Part of the reason this is unsure is that it’s impossible to completely separate genetic and environmental factors, meaning that it’s impossible to know for sure how much influence environmental factors had.The questions asked to the twins were broad, it is possible to grow up in a variety of situations and environments while sharing friends and classrooms, for example, and the questions did not factor in everything that could have an impact on gambling addiction.There is also the possibility for human error, in that the research into environmental factors was carried out through telephone interviews, relying not only on the honesty of the participants, but also on their ability to recall events and situations from the past, memories that may have been altered over time.

Is Gambling Genetic?

So, taking this research into account, is it likely that gambling addiction is genetic?The truth is, it would take a lot more than this research to know for sure, and even then, it certainly wouldn’t prove that it is the only cause of gambling addiction.Similarly to other addictions, while genetics may be a factor, and may make a person more likely to suffer with problem gambling, there are addicts who do not have any genetic factors, and people who don’t gamble, who have family members who have suffered.Addictions affect people for a variety of reasons, and when considering gambling addiction, it should be compared to drug and alcohol addiction, because at its root, it is based on the same thing, the need to feel different, to feel an instant high.Adrenaline chasing is a reason for many addicts having the issues that they do, and the high caused by winning big at a casino table, for example, is one that many can feel an immediate desire to repeat.As the addiction is to gambling, there is also the risk of belief that a big loss can be won back by continuing to play the same game, something that is fairly unique to gambling addiction, and adds extra issues for those who suffer.It is definitely possible, as shown by this research, that a predisposition to gambling, and specifically to gambling to excess, may well be genetic, but that cannot cut out the effect of environmental factors.For example, someone who is very familiar with gambling may, from one side, be aware of the risks and stay away, but from the other direction, may feel like their knowledge gives them an edge, due to the Gambler’s Fallacy (the belief that random events are affected by previous random events) and get involved in gambling to the point that it is a problem.What it is important to remember is that while some people may be more likely than others to suffer from gambling addiction, it can affect anybody.There are organisations and helplines throughout the world designed to help those who are suffering with this damaging addiction. If you believe that you are showing signs of problem gambling, or that someone you love may be, do not hesitate to contact one of these organisations, who will provide free support and advice.With online gambling becoming such a huge industry, and advertising being everywhere (including a huge percentage of English Premiership, and especially Championship football clubs having gambling companies as their shirt sponsors) it is easier than every to find somewhere to gamble, and tougher than it has ever been to avoid being reminded of the options available.If there is any factor that is currently most impactful when it comes to problem gambling, it is likely to be availability, and while steps are being taken to perhaps move gambling advertising to after the watershed, and the UKGC and other organisations are clamping down on fining those who are deemed to not be compliant with the regulations that are in place to protect vulnerable gamblers, it is also important for players, and their friends and families to be vigilant.Whether it is genetic or not, and there is evidence to suggest it may well be, at least partially, gambling addiction is incredibly damaging, and gambling related harm can affect you and those around you.As the slogan says, when the fun stops, stop.

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