An Australian study appears to have established a link between loss of self-control in old age and problem gambling.
However, according to the study, these problems occur only in those people who already gamble.
Lead author Professor Bill von Hippel, a psychologist associated with the University of Queensland, says that the findings of this study attain significance because Australia has one of the highest gambling expenditures in the world.
"And older adults are the demographic showing the greatest increase in gambling problems," ABC Science quoted him as saying.
The researcher believes that his team’s findings may have consequences for gaming policies in the future.
According to him, shrinking or atrophy of the frontal lobes of the brain, a normal part of aging, can reduce executive function—the brain’s ability to plan and alter behaviour.
Von Hippel agrees that the loss of executive function doesn''t make individuals less intelligent, but he insists that it does make self-control more difficult.
"We started to think that maybe adults who are having difficulty with self-control by virtue of frontal lobe atrophy would develop gambling problems," he said.
For their research, von Hippel and colleagues gave the study participants, aged between 60 and 85, two simple join-the-dots tests to measure their mental self-control.
The participants were then asked a series of questions to determine whether they had a gambling problem.
"We asked if they''d ever worried that they can''t stop gambling or if their family had ever criticised their gambling," says von Hippel.
He says that, together, the research team’s findings confirmed that older adults who had difficulty with self-control were more likely to have gambling problems.
The researcher, however, insists that it is important to note that even though most older adults will develop losses in the frontal lobes as a result of aging, this should not be taken to mean that all older adults have gambling problems.
He says that gambling problems only develop in older people who already enjoy gambling, which is why his research team collected their study participants from gaming establishments.
Von Hippel also points out that loss of self-control is only one factor that can lead to problem gambling, for impulsiveness, superstition, and absence of social relationship can also be contributing factors.
But he says longitudinal studies need to be done to confirm the association that loss of mental function leads to problem gambling.
"The only way to establish confidently that A leads to B is to study people over a long time," he says.
According to von Hippel, his team’s work has also shown that problem gambling leads to financial stress and depression.
"It suggests that in older people these gambling problems are really serious," he says.
The study has been published in a recent edition of Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition.