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New Research on the Impact of Having a Parent with Gambling Problems

by: Institute Staff | May 19, 2010

The following is an excerpt from the article, “All in the Family: New Research on the Impact of Having a Parent with Gambling Problems,” which was originally published in the spring 2010 edition of Responsible Gaming Quarterly.

Scientists and clinicians have long speculated that gambling disorders are more prevalent in families with a history of problem gambling behavior. The role that heredity plays in the development of a gambling disorder is important to research focused on the causes of the disorder and to assessment and treatment. Research has started to unravel the genetic versus environmental factors. A University of Minnesota study, “Characteristics of Pathological Gamblers with a Problem Gambling Parent,” recently published in The American Journal on Addiction, is the first attempt to determine whether having a problem gambling parent is associated with any unique clinical features in adults with pathological gambling (PG) (Schreiber, Odlaug, Kim, & Grant, 2009).

Lead author Liana Schreiber and colleagues hypothesized that adults in treatment for pathological gambling who had a problem gambling parent would (1) start gambling at an earlier age; (2) have more severe gambling symptoms; and (3) have higher rates of substance use disorders than PG adults without a PG parent.


The investigators found that one-third of the sample had at least one parent with a gambling problem. Overall, the investigators did not find many significant differences between the subjects with a PG parent and those without. For example, contrary to previous research on age of onset, subjects with a PG parent did not report a significantly earlier age of onset of gambling or gambling problems compared to those without a PG parent. Further research is needed to reconcile these differences. In addition, the severity of PG symptoms did not differ significantly between the two groups, and both groups had the same rate of psychiatric and substance use disorders.

Several important distinctions did emerge between the two groups. Subjects with a PG parent had significantly greater rates of daily nicotine use. Also, those with one PG parent were more likely to have a father with an alcohol-use disorder. The study authors conjecture that because children of alcoholics have more psychological, emotional and developmental difficulties compared to individuals without a family history of alcohol problems, the gambling could be a reflection of these problems. This finding suggests a possible genetic transmission of addictions, as found in studies of the Vietnam Era Twin Registry, which suggest that genetics account for 35 to 45 percent of PG symptoms and that there are common genetic and environmental contributions to PG and alcohol dependence (Eisen, Slutske, Lyons, et al., 2001; Slutske, Eisen, True, et al., 2000).

The subjects with a PG parent also reported significantly greater financial and legal problems. One explanation is that poor coping skills may be more severe in those with a family history of gambling problems, and the result is greater negative consequences. According to the authors, the study has several limitations, including the use of subjects’ memories of parents’ gambling behaviors to determine a family history. However, it represents a significant step forward in developing a detailed portrait of the origins of PG.

Liana R.N. Schreiber is a clinical research coordinator for the Impulse Control Disorders clinic at the University of Minnesota. In 2009, the University of Minnesota was selected as one of the first NCRG Centers of Excellence in Gambling Research.

For the full article and additional details about the study, see pages 8-9 of the spring 2010 Responsible Gaming Quarterly.


Eisen, S. A., Slutske, W. S., Lyons, M. J., Lassman, J., Xian, H., Toomey, R., et al. (2001). The genetics of pathological gambling. Seminar in Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 6(3), 195-204.

Schreiber, L., Odlaug, B. L., Kim, S. W., & Grant, J. E. (2009). Characteristics of pathological gamblers with a problem gambling parent. The American Journal on Addictions, 18(6), 462-469.

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