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AARP Bulletin

Losing Everything to Gambling Addiction

More older Americans are problem gamblers, but are they betting against their health, too?

The nation's $40 billion a year gambling industry aggressively targets older customers, as they have accumulated wealth and are especially vulnerable, experts say, to wagering more than they can afford. The enticements range from free bus trips, meals and even discount prescription cards to "comped" hotel accommodations — not to mention the private jets dispatched to pick up high-rollers like O'Connor.

"One of the lessons of the Maureen O'Connor case," says Philip Halpern, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted her, "is that it demonstrates the extreme lengths to which casinos will go to lure in high-stakes customers."

Gambling-industry marketers also know that advancing age, and the declining cognition that sometimes goes with it, can reduce a person's aversion to risk. "With age, there can be a decrease in the activity of decision-making parts of the brain related to executive functioning," Grant says. "If you have a deficit because of age, gambling may become riskier for you."

Older people with dementia are at especially high risk because they are unable to recognize limitations or use appropriate judgments. And dopamine agonists, a class of prescription drugs used to treat the symptoms of Parkinson's disease and restless legs syndrome, seem to be associated with compulsive gambling as a side effect, according to Marc Potenza, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Yale University who studies problem gambling.

Psychologists also suspect that people are more likely to run into problems if they turn to gambling for the wrong reasons — to escape loneliness, depression or even chronic pain.

"For a lot of the older people we see, it was never about the money," says Gordon Greco, 62, a compulsive gambler most of his life who now works as a counselor for the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas. "They go to the casino to escape regrets, loneliness, isolation, sadness. And when they start losing money, they find themselves with even bigger problems and regrets."

Video gambling machines, now permitted in more than 40 states, are the overwhelming favorite among older casino-goers, Hunter says. And that puts them at even greater risk. Although any kind of gambling can become addictive, video slot and poker machines are the most seductive because they offer the greatest escape, experts say. "Machine gambling is really the crack cocaine of compulsive gambling," says Lia Nower, the director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Indeed, in Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, Massachusetts Institute of Technology anthropologist Natasha Schull argues that mechanical rhythms that lull players into a trance-like state are deliberately built into electronic gambling machines. In what Schull calls the "machine zone," gamblers quickly lose track of daily worries, social demands and even their bodily needs.

Some psychologists and psychiatrists specialize in treating gambling addiction. Compulsive gamblers, these experts say, suffer from low self-esteem and fall into two broad categories: action gamblers, who relish excitement and believe they can beat the house, and escape gamblers, who seek to forget about pain or trauma in their lives.

Gamblers Anonymous programs are available in most parts of the country. Breaking a gambling addiction isn't easy, but GA programs do help some people.

"It saved my life," says Marilyn Lancelot. After being released from prison, she began attending GA meetings. She slowly paid off her debts and has managed to steer clear of gambling. "For a recovering gambler, there's always the itch to try it again," she admits. "But I know now that if I give in to it, I'm dead."


Ben Affleck The actor and filmmaker checked into a $33,850-a-month rehab center in Malibu, Calif., in 2001 for gambling and alcohol addictions.

Charles Barkley In 2006 the former NBA star pegged his gambling losses at $10 million, including $2.5 million blown in just six hours at the blackjack table.

William Bennett Dubbed "one of the nation's most relentless moral crusaders" by the New York Times in 2003, Bennett was a high-rolling gambler who racked up losses of more than $8 million at casinos.

Pete Rose The former Cincinnati Reds player and manager, who faces a lifetime suspension from baseball for betting on his own team, once incurred a debt of $400,000 to a bookmaker over a three-month period in 1987.

John Daly The so-called bad boy of the PGA Tour has put his gambling losses at more than $50 million over 12 years.

Gladys Knight The Empress of Soul once had a $40,000-a-night addiction to baccarat that she beat with the help of Gamblers Anonymous. "I would play every day if I could," she recalled in her autobiography.

Omar Sharif The film star and bridge expert ran up such mammoth gambling debts that he'd tell his agent to "accept any part, just to bail myself out," he said.

Terry Watanabe The ex-president of his family's party-favor import business in Omaha, Neb., lost at least $205 million to casinos in Las Vegas, including more than $120 million in 2007 alone.

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