Yet Another Peril of Old Age: Gambling Addiction
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Yet Another Peril of Old Age: Gambling Addiction


You’re 77 and retired. Maybe you feel isolated because your jerkoff kids don’t visit, maybe your spouse and best friends have passed—and maybe the casinos in your community are luring you into their dens with free dinners, discounted rooms and even oxygen tanks to offset the monotony.

If you’re tired of sitting around without someone to talk to, wasting your days away without hobbies due to physical limitations or financial constraints, it might seem wonderful to find a welcoming casino where staffers know your name and buy you cocktails on the house. So why not just sit down, take a load off and spend hours in front of a slot machine with a straight-up martini?

Fun, right? Not exactly.

Don’t Blame Seniors

Senior citizens are the fastest-growing demographic of gambling addicts in the US, and it’s a gut-wrenching trend to follow. More than 10 percent of people over the age of 65 have a gambling problem. With loads of idle time on their hands—and sometimes financial insecurity—they’re a vulnerable population for gambling addiction. And some casinos cater to their elderly customers with incentives like free or discounted meals, oxygen supplies and even boxes to dispose of diabetic needles, making the problem worse.

Usually, the responsibility for addiction shouldn’t be put on anyone other than the addict. But senior citizens lose discretion due to the aging process—3.9 percent of people over 71 have dementia, which stunts activity in the frontal lobe, the region of the brain that governs decision making and impulse control. With a shakier memory and a compromised ability to reason, it’s easy to go back to the bingo game or blackjack table for another round, even when it means more big losses.

The Gambling-Cocaine Connection

While dementia, idle time and loneliness can certainly drive seniors to the slot machines, grief over the loss of close friends or family members can also trigger them to check out at the casino. And while gambling addiction isn’t a chemical dependency, brain chemistry plays a big role in the cycle.

Scientists have proved that the risk and reward of gambling has the same effect on the brain as a line of coke. A study in 2001 led by Dr. Hans C. Breiter of Massachusetts General Hospital used MRIs to track the brain activity of gamblers while they put their money on the line. It turns out the changes in the brain’s neural circuits matched those that occurred in another experiment where scientists infused subjects’ brains with cocaine. And the bigger the bet, the higher the high.

Unfortunately, the gambling problem for senior citizens is only getting worse, especially with the proliferation of online gaming. Perhaps the best bet for curbing the problem is generating more awareness and more education so loved ones and friends can identify red flags. If a senior you know is acting aloof, losing interest in people or activities that they used to enjoy, or neglecting self-care and personal hygiene, they could have a gambling problem.

Save Your Local Senior

By just checking in and knowing there are resources out there to help, you might be able to stop the problem before it gets out of hand. And if you’ve got extra time on your hands, you can always volunteer at an old folks home or senior center. You never know—giving a senior some attention might just save them some big losses at the blackjack table.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.