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Compulsive shopping may be related to family history

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Close relatives of compulsive shoppers are more likely to be compulsive shoppers themselves, or experience mood disorders or substance abuse problems, than the relatives of non-compulsive shoppers.

These findings are published in the July issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry by Dr. Donald Black, University of Iowa professor of psychiatry.

Ten percent of the relatives of compulsive shoppers may be compulsive shoppers themselves, Black said, while only 2 to 3 percent would be described as compulsive shoppers in the general population.

"My interpretation is that 10 percent is significant," Black said. "That in itself suggests that there may be some familial shopping problem."

Also of interest is the finding that 20 percent of compulsive buyers' relatives were alcoholics compared to 4 percent of the relatives of the comparison subjects; 18 percent experienced depression, compared to 7 percent in the comparison group, and 7 percent of the compulsive buyers' relatives have a drug use disorder as compared to 1 percent in the control group.

"Perhaps growing up with an alcoholic or depressed parent may contribute to the development of compulsive shopping," Black said. "How and why is unclear."

Rather than suggesting that compulsive shopping itself is inherited, Black believes that the syndrome may result from a predisposition for impulse control disorders. In fact, he considers compulsive shopping, found primarily in women, to be the female equivalent of compulsive gambling, which affects more men. They share similar psychological processes, both tend to be chronic and lifelong disorders and are very difficult to treat.

The study included 33 compulsive shoppers and 22 people who reflected the general population of Iowa. Black interviewed these volunteers about their own psychiatric history and that of their close relatives. In addition, he asked the compulsive shoppers to describe the shopping habits of their relatives.

Compulsive shopping goes far beyond the joy of shopping that many people feel. Compulsive shopping can be identified by the uncontrollable need to buy something. Some compulsive shoppers describe a purchase as a fix. "The tension builds and builds until the compulsive shopper must make a purchase, then they feel better," Black says.

Black is currently seeking the best way to treat these patients.