People who gamble at least five times a year have more health problems than people who gamble less frequently, a new study reveals.
And people with a severe gambling addiction are the most likely to report serious health problems, such as increased heart rate, angina and liver disease when compared to people who have never had a gambling problem.
"One of the questions that has never been answered is whether gambling is associated with health risks," said co-author Nancy Petry, Ph.D., an expert on gambling disorders from the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.
The study, which appears in the November issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, used data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, which comprises more than 43,000 Americans.
Participants had an average age of 45 and a median household income of $35,000, with about a third living in households with income above $50,000. Study participants were nearly evenly divided between men and women, and 71 percent were white.
More than one-quarter of the participants gambled five or more times a year, which included playing cards for money; playing bingo or keno; gambling at casinos; betting on horses, dogs or sports games; buying lottery tickets and playing the stock market.
About 1 percent of participants were considered to be problem gamblers, but less than 0.5 percent were identified as being pathological gamblers individuals with a severe gambling addiction.
The researchers took into account demographic factors including age, gender, ethnicity and income, but still found that gamblers had increased rates of high blood pressure, obesity and alcoholism and were more likely to be smokers. In addition, these at-risk gamblers were more likely to have received treatment in an emergency room or reported a severe injury in the past year.
Even when researchers took into consideration the presence of other disorders such as alcoholism, obesity, smoking and psychiatric illnesses, they found that problem and pathological gamblers were more likely to report angina and cirrhosis of the liver compared to at-risk or low-risk participants. Pathological gamblers were also more likely to have elevated heart rate and other liver diseases in addition to cirrhosis.
"Helping practitioners look at the broader issues that gambling doesn't occur in isolation is a potential outcome of this research," said Cynthia S. Kerber, Ph.D., of Illinois Wesleyan University. This could help lead to earlier detection and treatment, said Kerber, who was not involved with the study. "Individuals often don't know when their gambling becomes a problem. So that makes it difficult for the individual to seek help and for health care providers to identify that it's a problem for their patients."
Petry says that her colleagues' study brings pathological gambling into the medical domain. "Some people don't take [gambling] as a serious problem. It's regarded in the same way substance abuse was thirty years ago. Our study showed that pathological gamblers are getting sicker more and utilizing health services more, so there is a greater societal cost of this addiction than is often acknowledged."