Is Gambling Hereditary?

dna hereditaryAccording to research, people who grow up in a household with smokers are around three-times more likely to become smokers themselves. Whilst that makes sense on account of the fact that nicotine is an addictive substance, is there anything to suggest that a similar thing could be said of gamblers? Are those that grow up with mums, dads or older siblings that gamble a lot more likely to end up being bettors themselves? What we know about the matter certainly suggests that that is the case, with gambling linked to a gene that can be passed on through generations.

Not only that, but the likelihood of a gambling addiction being passed down to a child is the same, irrespective of the child’s gender. Genes, it is believed, account for 50% of a person’s propensity to gamble. Genes have been linked to gambling in the past, but it was previously believed that it was mainly males who inherited the desire to place bets. The new research shows that that is not the case, though the scientists involved in the study did admit that more research needs to be carried out in order to discover the social and environmental influences.

What We Know

man looking through magnifying glassA study carried out by scientists from both the University of Missouri-Columbia and Australia's Queensland Institute of Medical Research looked at the habits of 2,700 women and 2,000 men from the Twin Registry of Australia. The twins were both identical and also fraternal, meaning that some shared the same genetic makeup and others shared their genes just as any brother and sister might. The research discovered that if one of the twins had a gambling problem an identical twin was more likely to develop one of their own than fraternal twins were, according to co-author Wendy Slutske.

The study, claimed the scientists, showed that women were just as likely to develop a gambling problem as men thanks to their genes. The findings discovered that men were more likely to be gambling addicts than women, but that both sexes engaged in gambling. It seems that people are more likely to develop a gambling problem if they have been ‘exposed to a problem gambling role model’, meaning that they can inherit a gambling problem because of their genes. Slutske did admit that, as there didn’t appear to be a specific ‘gambling gene’, it was a complex disorder.

Eight Times More Likely

8x eight timesFurther research into the matter of gambling being hereditary was carried out by the University of Iowa. That study reached the conclusion that those affected by pathological gambling are as much as eight times more likely to inherit a gambling problem from a family member. The results of the Iowa study also proposed a link between gambling problems and other disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Depression and anxiety were other issues that had ties to problem gambling, which the scientists involved in the study felt pointed to the seriousness of the issue.

The study involved the recruitment of 95 pathological gamblers and 91 control subjects, who were all matched for their age, gender and educational level. On top of that, more than 1,000 first-degree relatives were involved, all of whom were adults. Using research, interviews and interview material, the team were able to determine a gambling diagnosis for everyone involved in the study and found that 11% of the gambling relatives themselves had pathological gambling, which was compared to 1% of the control relatives.

This suggests that the odds of a gambling family to have a pathological gambler in it were about right times higher than in control families. Donald W. Black, a psychiatry professor at Iowa University and the lead author of the study, said that you always hear anecdotal evidence of pathological gambling existing in families but that to see the evidence so clearly was ‘quite striking’.  When the analysis was carried out again with a more defined focus, it was discovered that around 16% of relatives of pathological gamblers developed problems with gambling of their own.

Not All Studies Agree

thumbs up thumbs downIn truth, not all of the studies into the genetic links to gambling agree on the issue. Indeed, the results have varied from 70% to 0%, with some coming in at about the 35% to 53% mark. What that tells us, perhaps more than anything else, is that it is an extremely complicated issue. It is entirely reasonable to summarise that genetic factors are at least part of the reason why some people might develop a gambling problem. Equally, environmental factors do play a part in whether someone is more or less likely to develop a gambling habit.

It does make sense, of course. If you grow up watching someone gamble then the activity of gambling is going to be normalised for you. That will then make you more likely to gamble when you’re old enough to do so, with some parents allowing their children to engage in gambling activities, such as scratching their scratch cards for them or picking their lottery numbers. We know when that happens that those that have engaged in it are more likely to become gamblers themselves, which perhaps ends up straddling the line between environmental and genetic reasons.

Gamblers Share Traits

friends player poker in a pubDr Eve Limbrick-Oldfield and her team from the University of British Colombia in Canada set out to solve what they referred to as the ‘chicken or egg mystery’ around whether problem gambling is a cause or an effect of betting in the first place. The team behind the study identified that there are several links to be observed in people with gambling addictions, including impulsivity, altered brain-reward processing and risky decision-making. The question is, do those markets represent already existing vulnerabilities or are they a consequence of how gambling alters the brain?

They recruited twenty adults from London’s National Problem Gambling Clinic along with willing siblings, getting them to complete tests that measured their response to receiving rewards, their impulsiveness and their risk-taking. It was noted that siblings of problem gamblers were difficult to recruit on account of the fact that family relationships would often be quite strained. The study discovered that both the problem gamblers and their siblings displayed more impulsiveness and took more risks than the control group, but that the environment in which they grew up could be the reason for this.