Causes of Alcoholism
There is no one single cause of alcoholism. In fact, there are dozens of risk factors that play a role in the development of an alcohol addiction. These risk factors interact differently in every individual, leading to alcohol use disorders in some and not in others.
Both internal and external factors contribute to the development of alcoholism. Internal factors include genetics, psychological conditions, personality, personal choice, and drinking history. External factors include family, environment, religion, social and cultural norms, age, education, and job status.
The sheer number of factors that can influence the development of an alcohol addiction make it virtually impossible to accurately predict whether any individual will develop alcoholism. While it is an individual’s personal choice whether or not to begin drinking, a great deal of research suggests that the development of alcoholism once drinking commences is largely out of that individual’s control. It is also true that no single factor, nor group of factors, will determine whether or not someone becomes an alcoholic.
Certain psychological conditions greatly impact the likelihood that someone will develop alcoholism. For example, individuals who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, and social anxiety are much more likely to develop alcoholism. More than 40% of bipolar sufferers abuse or are dependent on alcohol, and approximately 20% of depression sufferers abuse or are dependent on alcohol.
Many individuals with psychological illnesses turn to alcohol as a method of coping with their illness. For example, some with schizophrenia claim that alcohol “quiets” the voices in their head, and some with depression claim that alcohol elevates their mood. This is especially common in individuals who have not been diagnosed or who have found that medication creates unpleasant side effects. Additionally, many psychologic disorders reduce an individual’s ability to perceive the reality of their drinking or to ignore risks and warning signs.
Some personalities are more likely to develop alcoholism than others. For example, Individuals who are more likely to pursue or disregard risk are more likely to engage in heavy drinking, as are those who are less inhibited. Much like genetics, personality factors are incredibly complex and interact with each other. Someone who always wants to be “the life of the party” might become a heavy social drinker because they perceive that they are more “likeable” when drunk, and someone with extreme shyness might become a heavy drinker in order to reduce their discomfort in social situations. The expectations an individual has about drinking also play a big role. Individuals who have positive expectations about alcohol’s impacts are more likely to develop alcoholism than individuals who have negative expectations about alcohol’s effects.
Personal Choice Factors
There are some aspects of personal choice when it comes to alcoholism. For example, someone who has decided that they will never have a drink is obviously not going to develop alcoholism. Additionally, those who choose to avoid social situations where drinking is likely to occur are also less likely to develop alcoholism. However, once an individual begins drinking personal choice has considerably less influence over whether they become an alcoholic compared to other factors.
Drinking History Factors
A person’s drinking history heavily influences their likelihood of developing alcoholism. Individuals with a long history of drinking are more likely to become alcoholics than those who have drank alcohol for less time. Similarly, individuals who have consumed more alcohol are more likely to become an alcoholic than individuals who have consumed less alcohol. Alcohol use actually rewires the brain to desire and depend on alcohol, and these effects are cumulative.
Many studies have concluded that no single factor has as much impact on whether or not someone becomes an alcoholic as that person’s genes. Biological children of alcoholics are substantially more likely to become alcoholics, whether they are raised by alcoholics or non-alcoholics. Similarly, non-biological children of alcoholics who are raised by alcoholics are less likely to become alcoholics than biological children who are raised by alcoholics.
The genetics behind alcoholism are extremely complex and far from fully understood. Alcoholism is not caused by a single gene, but rather a large number of genes that interact with one another. At least 51 genes that impact alcoholism have been discovered. Genetics impact many aspects of alcoholism. For example, genetics influence how easily and quickly alcoholism is broken down, how severe hangovers are, how alcohol makes an individual feel, how much an individual seeks out risky behaviors, and how likely someone is to stop or continue drinking.
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Excluding genetics, an individual’s family life plays a significant role in the likelihood that they develop alcoholism. People who grow up in a family where heavy drinking is practiced, or even encouraged, are more likely to develop alcoholism. In these families, heavy drinking is normalized and glamorized, making it socially acceptable, expected, and potentially desirable.
The environment in which someone resides plays a role in alcoholism. In some countries and states, it is significantly harder and more expensive to acquire alcohol. With less access, it is less likely that an individual develops alcoholism. In general, the more pervasive the presence of alcohol in an environment, the more likely an individual is to develop alcoholism. Family wealth also plays a role. Individuals with greater family wealth are considerably more likely to heavily consume alcohol and develop alcohol use disorders. In the United States, 78% of individuals with an annual household incomes of $75,000 a year drink, while only 45% of individuals with an annual household income less than $30,000 drink.
While someone of any religion can become an alcoholic, individuals who are strict adherents to religions that strongly oppose alcohol are less likely to become alcoholics. This is especially true when that religion strongly influences local laws, social practices, and the availability of alcohol. Some of the most commonly studied examples include Islam, Mormonism, Evangelical Protestantism, and Orthodox Judaism.
Social and Cultural Factors
Many social and cultural factors influence alcoholism. In general, where drinking is acceptable or encouraged, alcohol abuse disorders are more likely to develop. Perhaps the most commonly cited example is college, where alcohol consumption is widely celebrated and embraced, even particularly dangerous forms of drinking such as binge drinking.
Social and cultural factors also impact treatment. Cultures where drinking is considered shameful may cause alcoholics to hide their condition and avoid treatment due to the stigma of being labeled an alcoholic.
Both primary and sub-cultures impact alcoholism. Members of certain sub-cultures are more likely to engage in alcohol abuse, which in many cases is actively encouraged by other members and seen as a method of acceptance.
An individual’s age strongly influences the likelihood of alcohol abuse. In general, alcohol use begins in late teens to early twenties, peaks in late to mid-twenties, and slows down by the early thirties. Individuals in their early to mid-twenties are the most likely to abuse alcohol and suffer from alcohol use disorders. However, the younger that an individual starts consuming alcohol, the more likely they are to develop alcoholism later in life. This is especially true of individuals who start drinking before 15.
In general, the more highly educated an individual is, the more likely they are to consume alcohol. In the United States, 80% of college graduates drink, while only 52% of individuals with no college drink. College graduates who drink are 61% more likely to say that they have consumed alcohol within the last 24 hours than non-college graduates who drink. Education also impacts other drinking habits for example. College graduates in the United States strongly prefer wine to beer, and non-college graduates prefer beer to wine.
Certain professions are more likely to develop alcoholism than others. This is especially true of high stress, high risk professions, or those dominated by younger adults. In particular, military members are more likely to develop alcohol use disorders. Employment generally influences alcohol consumption.
Known Specific Risk Factors
- Consuming more than 15 drinks per week for men or 12 drinks per week for women
- Binge drinking (consuming more than 5 or more drinks in a 2-hour period for men or 4 or more drinks in a 2 hour period for women)
- Having a biological family member with alcoholism or drug addiction
- Having a mental health condition such as bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety
- Experiencing peer pressure to drink, especially as a young adult
- Having low self-esteem or self-worth
- Experiencing high levels of stress
- Residing in a family or culture where alcohol use is common and accepted
How Alcoholism Risk Factors Affect Treatment and Relapse
No matter how many risk factors are present in an alcoholic’s life, treatment is still possible. It’s critical to remember that no risk factor is determinative, and your history does not decide your future. Treatment providers have years of experience dealing with alcohol addicts from all walks of life with all types of risk factors. Contact a dedicated treatment provider to find a rehabilitation facility today.