As reported by The Hartford Courant, May 24, 2004.

Inside the Brain of a Gambler: One Researcher Directs a Study

Elderly Bettors a Focus in 24-Year-Old's Work

By Rick Green

Robert Pietrzak is not much of a gambler, but he's hit a jackpot of sorts by returning to his native Connecticut, home of the world's largest casinos.

Pietrzak, a 24-year-old psychiatric researcher who grew up in New Britain, came back a couple of years ago to pursue a master's degree in public health at the University of Connecticut. The payoff came when he happened upon a largely unstudied population: the state's thousands of dedicated gamblers.

Now a graduate of UConn and aiming for medical school, Pietrzak represents another side of the state's love affair with betting: researchers assessing the health impact of all those slot machines, bingo games, Internet wagering websites and lottery scratch tickets. Recently, his graduate thesis on gambling and older adults, which earned him two national awards, was selected for publication in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

"People think older adults, they don't gamble that much, they don't have these kinds of problems," said Pietrzak, who works for Nancy Petry, head of the Gambling Treatment and Research Center at the UConn Health Center in Farmington. "Denial is a huge issue. People are not going to tell you there is a problem. This condition can spiral out of control quickly."

Pietrzak's new work raises some provocative issues: Older problem gamblers also appear to suffer from a variety of other physical and psychological health issues. A gambling problem may be masked by these other more obvious problems - such as depression, anxiety or a chronic medical condition, Pietrzak said.

As a result, social workers and physicians may want to pay more attention to whether patients are gambling, he said. Further, senior citizens who aren't pathological gamblers but are still struggling with financial and emotional problems due to excessive gambling, may be falling through the cracks entirely.

Social workers and counselors say these findings must be more carefully examined, particularly with large numbers of older people gambling at the casinos, buying lottery tickets, playing church bingo - or running up thousands of dollars of debt on Internet sites.

"My problem started with the computer," said one 61-year-old woman now in treatment, who spent more than $100,000 on an out-of-control Internet gambling habit.

"Emotionally I never would have thought of gambling as an addiction. I thought of drugs or alcohol as an addiction," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "The shame that has come with this is unbelievable."

Counselors and others who work with the elderly say it is not surprising that Pietrzak's study suggests that older problem gamblers may be going without any treatment.

"With 70-, 80- and 90-year-olds, it's a generation of closed-mouth people who don't talk about their families and their problems," said Cecelia Bray, a town official in Union who is director of marketing and admissions for an assisted living facility in Webster, Mass.

This is further complicated by the fact that no one is really looking for gambling problems among the elderly, said Patricia Devendorf, a counselor at the Wheeler Clinic in Hartford and Plainville who coordinates the state-funded Bettor Choice Gambling Program.

Older folks with mild to moderate gambling problems "are even less likely to be identified. And those are the people that can be helped before the serious downslide," said Devendorf. "We are not seeing enough of the screening."

Pietrzak, valedictorian of his 1997 graduating class at New Britain's Mary Immaculate Academy, said he hopes his gambling research will lead to more awareness.

"What we are planning to do is a follow-up on this older adult study," said Pietrzak, who is aiming for a career in psychiatric research. "Do they have physical health problems before they start gambling? Are they unhealthy because they are gambling? Or did they begin gambling because they were unhealthy?"

Next month, he will travel to Phoenix to present his work before the annual meeting of the National Council on Problem Gambling. Earlier this year, his research also earned him the Durand Jacobs Award, given by the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors, in Montreal.

"I always wanted to probe a little deeper," Pietrzak said of his longtime interest in neuroscience and, now, gambling behavior. "I was more the type who was trying to figure out what the brain was doing."