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Pathological Gambling a Medical Problem, Not a Bad Habit

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The difference, says Potenza, is just like the people who pull up to Beverage Square in cars so beat up the doors don't open. A pathological gambler has no money to spend on car repairs, let alone a new car, he says. The pathological gambler will use food, rent, and utility money for gambling -- and when that runs out he or she may steal to feed the habit. Like the alcoholic who becomes a "closet drinker," the pathological gambler will lie to family and friends about his or her gambling.

A typical scenario, says McKearney, "is like the woman who won $75 on an instant ticket and said, 'Now I can pay the electric bill.'"

Some groups have a higher risk for pathological gambling than others, says Potenza. Men are two to three times more likely to be problem gamblers than are women, and blacks have a higher risk than whites. A family history of gambling problems is also a risk factor and the poor are more likely to be drawn into problem gambling than are wealthier, better-educated people.

The good news, says Potenza, is that some drugs may lessen the gambling urge. A few small studies suggest that antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft may work in some individuals, he says, while others may respond to naltrexone, a drug used in treating addiction to alcohol and heroin.

Potenza says, too, that self-help programs such as Gamblers Anonymous and the family support program called Gam-Anon have also been helpful for some pathological gamblers.

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