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Until a few weeks ago, Maureen O'Connor was best known as the first female mayor of San Diego, a plucky Democrat in a town full of Republicans who started her political career by winning a seat on the city council at age 25.

Now, the 66-year-old former politician is internationally infamous as the woman who wagered more than $1 billion over a decades-long spree, gambling away her late husband's $40 million fortune and stealing $2 million from the nonprofit foundation he established.

O'Connor's epic fall reminded me of a far more modest tragedy: a schoolteacher I interviewed several years ago who was the picture of respectability and sound money management until she became addicted to gambling late in life.

Gail had a $300,000 nest egg, carefully saved from 40 years of paychecks. After retiring to Phoenix, she decided to check out an Indian casino that had opened nearby. She won a couple of jackpots -- first $10,000, then $7,000 a few weeks later.

Those two wins triggered five years of compulsive gambling, Gail said. She spent every available hour, and every penny of her savings, trying to recapture the rush of those first big payouts. She stopped only when she ran out of money and faced the prospect of losing her home.

Her empty savings accounts were bad enough, but what I most remember most from our interview was her deep sense of longing. She'd gone through a treatment program and hadn't gambled in two years, but she still couldn't drive by a casino without missing the thrill.

"I don't think I'll ever find anything quite as exciting as gambling," she said.

The extent of problem gambling isn't clear, especially among older adults. Some studies put the pathological gambling rate at 1% to 2% of the general population. That compares with an alcoholism rate of about 4% among all adults, and 0.24% among seniors, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

What is clear is that the explosion of legal gambling opportunities in recent decades poses a particular danger for seniors, who are often on a fixed income and don't have future working years to make up for any losses.

Yet gambling is a popular pastime with the older crowd. Day trips to casinos are a preferred recreation option at many senior centers, assisted living facilities and other organizations catering to older adults. One often-cited study by University of Pennsylvania addiction researcher David Oslin found that 70% of the seniors questioned had gambled in the previous year and that one in 10 had bet more than he or she could comfortably afford to lose.

How can you know when the thrill of gambling has triggered an addiction? Identifying truly pathological gamblers isn't easy, at least from the outside. Problem gamblers can successfully hide their compulsion for years, allowing them to go through their money without friends or even family catching on. Unlike alcoholics or drug addicts, gamblers exhibit few physical or behavioral signs of the underlying problem -- no telltale breath, bleary eyes, track marks or run-ins with the law.

O'Connor's friends and former colleagues expressed astonishment at the extent of her gambling. Federal court documents show she gambled at casinos in San Diego, Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J., and was considered enough of a "whale" that Las Vegas casinos sent private jets to fetch her.

Liz Weston // Image: Liz Pulliam Weston (Liz Weston)

Liz Weston

Eugene Iredale, her attorney, said she began to spend hours compulsively playing video poker to deal with her grief after the death of her husband, Robert O. Peterson, who founded the Jack in the Box restaurant chain. Her grief was compounded by the deaths of three close friends: McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc in 2003, newspaper publisher Helen Copley in 2004 and actress Mercedes McCambridge in 2004, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

Friends say O'Connor became increasingly reclusive. In 2011, she was treated for a large brain tumor that Iredale says contributed to her gambling addiction.

Iredale says O'Connor is now broke and living with her twin sister in La Jolla, Calif. As part of a deferred prosecution, she has two years to repay the money she took from the R.P. Foundation.

Hiding losses and the extent of time spent gambling are classic signs of compulsion. Other actions that can indicate problem gambling include:

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  • Preoccupation with gambling and getting money to gamble.
  • Loss of control over time spent gambling or amounts spent.
  • Repeated, unsuccessful attempts to cut back.
  • Lying to others to conceal extent of gambling.
  • Cashing in life insurance, draining savings or tapping home equity to gamble.
  • Inability to meet financial obligations due to gambling.
  • Committing crimes to secure gambling money.
  • Feelings of guilt or shame because of gambling.

As with alcoholism and other addictions, out-of-control gambling can be treated at inpatient centers and 12-step self-help groups. Gamblers Anonymous, which operates on principles similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, has meetings in most areas. A sister organization, Gam-Anon, is available for friends and relatives of problem gamblers.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.

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