As reported by Reuters Health, December 1, 2006.

Problem Gamblers Have Poorer Health

By Amy Norton

FARMINGTON -- People who can't control their gambling may have higher odds of physical health problems as well, a new study shows.

Researchers found that among more than 43,000 Americans in a national survey, problem gamblers had elevated rates of liver disease, high blood pressure, high heart rate and angina -- chest pain caused by blockages in the heart arteries.

Although gambling addiction often goes hand-in-hand with substance abuse, anxiety and other mental health disorders, the new study is the first to link it to specific medical conditions.

There's no way to tell from the findings whether the physical health problems stemmed from the gambling problems, Dr. Nancy M. Petry, the study's senior author, told Reuters Health.

But the study shows that gamblers' problems extend beyond financial woes and mental health issues, and influence physical health, said Petry, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.

She and her colleagues report their findings in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

Using data from a federal survey on the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in the U.S., the researchers found that pathological gamblers were more than twice as likely as people without gambling problems to have angina and nearly three times more likely to have liver disease. They were also almost twice as likely to suffer from tachycardia, an excessively rapid heartbeat.

The subjects were at increased risk of developing these disorders even after other factors, including alcohol abuse and mental health disorders, were taken into account.

Pathological gambling is a psychiatric disorder that is diagnosed when a person meets at least 5 out of 10 criteria - such as being preoccupied by gambling, needing to make ever larger bets to gain a "high," and lying to family and others to cover up their gambling.

Less than 0.5 percent of the 43,093 Americans in the current survey met this definition. Another 1 percent met a few of the criteria for pathological gambling and were considered "problem" gamblers.

The problem gamblers also had more medical problems, Petry's team found, with higher risks of high blood pressure, angina and cirrhosis of the liver than non-gamblers.

Alcoholism, smoking and mental health disorders did not fully explain these physical health risks in this group either, which suggests that something about gambling itself does the harm, according to Petry.

Chronic stress, a generally sedentary lifestyle and heavy exposure to secondhand smoke are some of the factors that might be at work, she and her colleagues speculate.

"We hope this makes people re-think legalized gambling," Petry said. At the very least, she noted, the findings show that problem gamblers often have serious health problems that need treatment. But few doctors, or even mental health professionals, ask patients about gambling habits.