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Gambling With Addiction

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May, 16, 2001 -- The backroom poker game and the racetrack traditionally may have been an all-male bastion, but Karen H., of Los Angeles, can tell you that gambling addiction is an equal opportunity employer.

Karen began her dance with Lady Luck at the age of 8. "I classified myself as the best card shuffler in the second grade," she tells WebMD. "We'd flip baseball cards against the garage, and whoever got closest won all the cards."

By the time she was a teenager, she was playing real cards with the boys and delighting the adults at her parents' poker parties. But the thrill of beating the odds -- like the euphoria of alcohol or drugs -- would take its toll, as her gambling became an addiction and a way of life.

As an adult and a mother, she would have to keep some aspects of her gambling life -- like nighttime forays to the card clubs of nearby Gardenia, Calif. -- a secret. "Everyone knew when I went to Vegas or when I bet on the sports games," she says. "But no one knew about my trips to Gardenia. I kept that in the closet. I thought, it was okay for a man to gamble, but I was a mom with two kids."

Today, Karen considers herself a recovering gambling addict. And though aspects of her story are unique, she is definitely not alone: Experts say there has been an explosion in the number of women seeking treatment for gambling addictions.

Estimates of the percentage of people with gambling addictions range from 1% to 4%, and one-third of all gamblers are believed to be women. Yet much of the existing research on gambling is derived from studies of men, experts say.

Now, new research looking at gender differences in pathological gambling is yielding some eyebrow-raising findings. In a comparison of 48 females and 53 males entering an outpatient treatment program for pathological gambling, researchers found that women tended to start gambling later than men but that their disorder progressed faster.

"What we found is that women tend to progress two to four times faster than men between the onset of gambling regularly until they sought their first gambling-specific treatment," says researcher Hermano Tavares, MD, PhD.

"Many of these women are not the regular image of a gambler. They are mostly recent gamblers, often retired mothers that went to gamble a little, got distracted, and came out with a huge headache. They are bewildered and can't believe what has happened to their lives."

Tavares suggests two possible interpretations for the more rapid progression: Either women are more vulnerable to addiction than men, or they more likely to seek treatment earlier. But he says he is skeptical of the latter explanation, saying that there are a host of social and cultural reasons why women are likely not to seek treatment. "It's still an open question, but we think there is something related to a gender-specific vulnerability," he says.

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