Some seniors found at risk from betting


PHILADELPHIA - More than 1 of 10 people over the age of 65 are at risk of financial problems because of gambling, according to a University of Pennsylvania survey being released today.

Nearly 70 percent of 843 older patients surveyed who received care at Penn's primary-care practices and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center said they had gambled within the past year. Almost 11 percent were labeled "at-risk" gamblers - people who recently had wagered $100 on a single bet or had gambled more than they could afford to lose.

"They clearly are gambling at a level that makes me worry about whether they're spending their money wisely," said David Oslin, a Penn geriatric psychiatrist who led the study, which included researchers from Pennsylvania State University and was published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Gambling is a $40 billion industry in the United States. Some type of legal gambling is available in all but two states, Utah and Hawaii. Seniors here have ready access to Atlantic City as well as racetracks and off-track betting parlors, and by 2006 Pennsylvania is likely to have legalized slot machines.

While previous studies have found that the elderly are less likely to gamble than younger people, the ranks of older gamblers are increasing more rapidly than those of any other age group. National surveys found that 23 percent of the elderly had gambled within the past year in 1975, compared with 50 percent in 1998.

That is troubling, experts say, because many elderly people live on fixed incomes, and it is hard, if not impossible, to recoup losses without having a job. Also, many older women are drawn to slot machines, a type of gambling that, according to some research, is especially addictive, said Rani Desai, a Yale University School of Medicine epidemiologist.

That older people gamble is obvious to anyone who has walked into an Atlantic City casino, especially in the day, when gray heads dominate. Bus excursions to the city's 12 casinos are a staple of senior centers, clubs and church groups. From 8 million to 10 million people are bused into Atlantic City every year, said Edward Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey. More than 60 percent of them are senior citizens.

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