The results of this study indicate that older adult problem gamblers who began gambling earlier in life gambled more often than did their counterparts who began gambling as adults. The two groups also differed in their frequency of betting on sports and card games. Given that these types of gambling are common in nonlegalized venues, the propensity of gamblers with an early onset of gambling to wager on these activities may be related to their early participation in these activities, before the widespread legalization of gambling.
Scores on the ASI and the SF-36 suggest that participants with early-onset gambling had more severe health difficulties than did those with a later onset. Those with an early onset were twice as likely as those with a late onset to have a chronic medical condition, and they endorsed poorer functioning on measures of general physical health. Physically ill individuals may be drawn to sedentary gambling activities, and gambling may be a coping mechanism among older adults who are socially isolated and who have failing health. Alternatively, problem gambling may lead to inactive lifestyles. However, cross-sectional designs such as the one used in this study cannot be used to confirm these possibilities.
Participants with an early onset of gambling also reported greater psychiatric problems over the course of their lifetimes and at the time of the interview. Problem and pathological gambling have been associated with a variety of psychiatric conditions in previous research (3). The results of this study strengthen these earlier findings by suggesting that psychiatric difficulties may occur throughout life among persons who begin gambling while young. Surprisingly, no differences in substance use problems were noted between the two groups of gamblers. Problem gambling has been highly associated with alcohol and drug use among today’s youths (1,2,3,4,5). Few participants in this study reported any illicit drug use, perhaps because they grew up during a time when drug use was not common. However, we did not collect detailed histories of substance use in this sample.
The findings of this study are limited by a number of issues. The results are based on self-reports of events that may have occurred 40 years previously. Although this is one of the first studies to specifically address older adult problem gamblers (4), the sample was small and primarily Caucasian. However, the fact that a non-treatment-seeking sample was recruited maximizes the generalizability of the findings to older problem gamblers.
This TOGEL study was supported in part by grants RO1-MH-60417, RO1MH-60417-suppl, RO1-DA-13444, RO1-DA-14618, P50-AA-03510, P50-DA-09241, and P60-AG-13631 from the National Institutes of Health as well as by the Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation Investigator Program. The authors thank Yola Ammerman, Sabrena Davis, and Heather Gay for their assistance with data collection and management and George Ladd, Ph.D., and Gerard Kerins, M.D., for their assistance with the study.