By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Hoarding is a condition where a person feels compelled to store and preserve materials and stuff which may or may not be of value.
The true prevalence of compulsive hoarding among the population is unknown as many people with the condition go undetected.
It is estimated that up to 1.2 million people suffer from compulsive hoarding in the USA. (1, 2)
Hoarding as a survival mechanism
All hoarders are not compulsive hoarders. It is believed that hoarding may be a part of a survival mechanism.
For example, in the animal world the squirrels gather nuts and humans farmers preserve seeds and provisions for hard times.
Brain scans done on squirrels show activity in the same areas as human hoarders.
This means that the instinct for hoarding may be deep seated.
When in moderation, and with useful items like tinned goods and spare light bulbs and candles, this may be important.
However, a compulsive hoarder fails to make the distinction between what is useful and what is not as the disease progresses. (1)
Actual causes of hoarding
Actual causes of compulsive hoarding are unknown.
However, there are some associated features that may characterize a compulsive hoarder. These may be termed as reasons or causes for hoarding. These include hereditary causes, brain damage, serotoning and other medical conditions. (2-5)
Up to 85% of people with compulsive hoarding usually name at least one another family member who has this problem.
Hoarders may also have grown up in cluttered homes themselves and derive comfort from the clutter.
It is suggested that abnormal brain development and brain lesions could lead to compulsive behaviors of hoarding.
Sometimes hoarding may begin after brain damage due to surgery, stroke, brain injury or infections.
Serotonin and OCD
The chemical serotonin also seems to play a part in obsessive compulsive disorders. It is a chemical that the brain uses to transmit information.
Serotonin level alterations may play a role in compulsive hoarding as well.
However, compared to patients with OCD, hoarders may develop the condition much later in life.
In addition hoarders have lesser awareness that their condition is abnormal compared to patients with OCD.
Those who have faced early deprivation may develop hoarding as a survival mechanism later in life.
This can be usually found on psychological examination of the patient.
Other mental health conditions
Other mental health conditions like social phobia or fear of social interactions, bipolar disorders, specific phobias or fears, anxiety and depression may give rise to compulsive hoarding behaviour.
Stressful life events
Stressful life event like a divorce or death of a loved one may trigger hoarding behaviour.
Usually hoarders may suffer from loneliness, substance abuse or alcohol dependence.
Edited by April Cashin-Garbutt, BA Hons (Cantab)
What is hoarding?
Last Updated: Jun 28, 2012