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Genetics of Alcoholism

Those who have a family history of alcoholism have a higher risk of developing a drinking problem. Studies show that alcoholism is approximately 50 percent attributable to genetics.

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Alcohol Addiction and Genetics

Our genetic structure determines all our human traits. Our DNA dictates our physical characteristics (such as eye color) and also our behavioral characteristics (such as aggression). These genes are passed on to us by our parents.

Among the behavioral traits parents can pass on to their children is a predisposition toward alcohol abuse and addiction.

Among those abusing alcohol, people who are genetically predisposed to alcoholism have a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Although people can inherit alcoholic tendencies, the development of an alcohol use disorder is also dependent on social and environmental factors. Some who have inherited genes making them susceptible to alcoholism are responsible drinkers or never take a drink in their life.

Research shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for AUD. Therefore, genes alone do not determine whether someone will develop AUD. Environmental factors, as well as gene and environment interactions account for the remainder of the risk.

- National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

The “Alcoholic Gene”

There is not a single gene responsible for alcoholism. There are hundreds of genes in a person’s DNA that may amplify the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Identifying these genes is difficult because each plays a small role in a much larger picture. Yet, studies have shown that certain combinations of genes have a strong relationship to alcoholism.

There are also behavioral genes passed down that could influence a propensity for alcoholism. Mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, are more common in people with a family history of these disorders. People with mental illness have a higher risk of turning to substance abuse as a way of coping. Mental disorders can be hereditary (and environmental), which partially illuminates the complex link between genetics and addiction.

Environment vs. DNA

Genetic makeup only accounts for half of the alcoholic equation. There are also countless environmental factors (work, stress, relationships) that may lead to alcoholism.

Our hereditary behaviors interact with our environment to form the basis of our decisions. Some people are more sensitive to stress, making it harder to cope with an unhealthy relationship or a fast-paced job. Some people experience a traumatizing event and turn to alcohol to self-medicate.

However, even those with a high genetic risk to substance abuse must first be driven by a nonhereditary factor to do it. The catalyst that leads to alcohol abuse is very often an environmental factor, such as work-related stress.

In general, the more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance of developing an alcohol use disorder or addiction. There are also protective factors that reduce a person’s risk. Risk and protective factors are either environmental or biological.

Risk factors include:

  • Aggressive behavior in childhood
  • Lack of parental supervision
  • Poor social skills
  • Alcohol and drug experimentation
  • Poverty
  • Availability of alcohol

Protective factors include:

  • Good self-control
  • Parental monitoring and support
  • Good grades
  • Anti-alcohol policies
  • Neighborhood resources

Some environmental factors that are particularly risky for those who are genetically inclined towards alcoholism include:

  • Drug accessibility
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Peer pressure
  • Witnessing violence

Mental illness increases the likelihood of developing alcoholism by 20% to 50%.

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Are You at Risk of Becoming an Alcoholic?

Those with a history of alcoholism in their family have the highest risk of becoming alcoholics. If you have more than one relative with an alcohol addiction or other substance use disorder, you may have inherited the genes that put you at risk. The more family members (related by birth) you have with an alcohol problem, the higher your risk.

Just because someone may have a strong susceptibility toward alcoholism does not mean he or she is resigned to that fate. No one can control their genetic makeup, but everyone can take measures to prevent an addiction. According to research, some of the best ways to curb a genetic predisposition from becoming a full-on alcohol addiction include:

  • Knowing family history of substance abuse
  • Maintaining healthy friendships
  • Enforcing strong family ties
  • Seeking relationship counseling
  • Managing stress
  • Understanding the symptoms of addiction
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If you have a genetic risk of developing an alcohol addiction and have exhibited signs of this disorder, it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible. Counseling and support can help tackle social and environmental factors that could contribute to an alcohol problem in the future. If you or a loved one has already developed a problem, there are outpatient and inpatient programs that can help. Contact a treatment provider to discuss your options.

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