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Compulsive Hoarding What Does Research Tell Us?



Compulsive hoarding may first be perceived as an individual collecting things. Collecting things becomes a problem when the amount of material accumulated interferes with the normal living space.

When did it start? This ongoing collection of things? The inability to throw anything away? Are these habits symptoms of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or types of mental illness? The aging compulsive hoarder causes a tremendous amount of caregiver stress and worry.

The material accumulated far exceeds what is put into the trash. This leads to furniture and any living space becoming a place to pile things. Over time, many live in a home that is a fire and health hazard, as they are unable to throw away junk mail, trash, or even garbage. The material acquired is so great that there are little paths to get to and from a few areas in the home.

Individuals that hoard experience overwhelming fears of losing important things that they believe will be needed in the future. The hoarder has a distorted view about the importance of things. They develop an emotional attachment to their belongings. Because of poor decision making, they have a fear that they must not throw anything away, as it may be needed in the future. The behavior of avoiding making a decision allows them to avoid the anxiety over making the “wrong” decision or being viewed as imperfect or unprepared for any scenario.

Paper is the most common form of hoarding, but you will hear of individuals that hoard animals such as cats and dogs far beyond their ability to care for them.

Researchers believe that compulsive hoarding behaviors are far more common than you would expect. Because of the shame and embarrassment over their living situation, many hoarders do not seek treatment. It is only after family members come forward; concerned over the living situation that this problem come to light.

So what causes the hoarder to develop this type of behavior? The National Institute of Mental Health funded scientific research to study the brain functions of three very distinct groups. Brain scans were preformed on individuals with no hoarding behaviors, individuals with diagnosed obsessive compulsive disorders (this group was chosen as they are individuals that are compelled to respond to anxiety) and the last group were individuals with compulsive hoarding disorder.

The results of this study were surprising. The mental health community identifies compulsive hoarding as a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The brain scans showed a much different picture.

It was discovered that the brain scans of the hoarder is very different from the individual with Obsessive Compulsive order. The brain waves of the hoarder have very low activity in the cingulate gyrus of the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for generating the energy in the decision–making part of the brain as well as the area of the brain that helps us to respond to stress and motivation. This part of the brain also affects our visual and spatial perception.

Science now believes that this low activity is the reason the compulsive hoarder develops the behaviors of saving and accumulating things, as well as having problems with organization, poor attention and difficulty with making decisions.

It has also been discovered there is a strong genetic component or gene that is responsible for the hoarding behaviors. In a study of individuals with Obsessive Compulsive disorder, the hoarders studied were found to be predisposed to social phobias, personality disorders and poor personal grooming disorders more than the non hoarding individuals that have just Obsessive Compulsive disorder.

The social stigma and the strong emotional attachment to their things make this a difficult condition to treat. Most are unwilling to reveal or even acknowledge they have a problem. This leaves their family members frustrated and living in fear that a disaster is waiting to happen.

There is help out there for the compulsive hoarder. A practical, consistent and very structured approach can treat the compulsive hoarder, if they seek help. Until then, family members will continue to have the dumpsters drive up to the home and spend days and weeks trying to provide a safe and clean environment. The sad thing is, without intervention, the family will be forced to do it all over, when the house fills up again.

It most often takes a medical or health care crisis to get the hoarder out of their environment. They will take their habits with them wherever they go.

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