Genes play a role in various aspects of a person’s life. From his or her behaviors to physical characteristics, genetics are responsible for nearly every human trait a person has. One behavioral trait that can be passed down via genetics is a predisposition towards alcohol abuse and addiction.
Alcohol addiction is one of the most prevalent diseases in the nation, with an estimated one in 12 adults suffering from alcoholism. Approximately 100,000 Americans die every year as a result of alcohol abuse and addiction.
Individuals who abuse alcohol and have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism are far more likely to suffer from alcohol use disorder. In fact, genetics are up to 50 percent responsible for the development of alcoholism. However, other factors also play a role in a person’s risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.
Let’s look at the connection between alcoholism and genetics.
How Genetics Influence Alcohol Addiction
According to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an estimated 40 to 60 percent of factors that influence alcoholism are genetic. This means that people with a family history of alcohol addiction are up to 50 percent more likely to develop this condition than those with no genetic influences.
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It has also been found that people who are predisposed to metabolize alcohol in a certain way are also at an increased risk of alcohol use disorder. More specifically, people who primarily experience the pleasurable effects of alcohol rather than the negative effects have a higher likelihood of alcohol abuse and addiction.
The following are ways in which genetics may increase the risk of alcoholism:
- Varied Serotonin Levels — Abnormal levels of serotonin in the brain have been linked to a genetic predisposition to alcoholism.
- Lack Of Warning Signals — A person who has a genetic history of alcohol addiction may interrupt the warning signs of too much alcohol differently. Little or no bodily and mental warning signs may be experienced by people predisposed to alcoholism.
- Smaller Parts Of The Brain — Some studies have shown that individuals who are predisposed to alcoholism have smaller amygdalas. The amygdala is a part of the brain believed to be linked to cravings and emotions.
- Predisposition For Mental Illness — Many mental illnesses are believed to be genetic. Having a mental health disorder can increase the risk of alcohol addiction by up to 50 percent.
There is no one gene that determines a person’s risk of alcohol addiction. Rather, hundreds of genes can work to increase someone’s predisposition to alcoholism. How a person responds to these genes as well as countless environmental factors are what determines whether he or she develops an alcohol use disorder.
Environmental Factors That Affect Alcoholism
A person’s genetics account for only an estimated half of a person’s risk of developing an alcohol addiction. Several environmental factors also play a role in whether a person will have an alcohol use disorder.
Environmental risk factors that may increase the risk of alcoholism include:
- early exposure to drug or alcohol abuse
- aggressive or violent behavior as a child
- little or no parental supervision
- access to alcohol
- early childhood abuse or trauma
- peer pressure to drink
Environmental factors are believed to be the ultimate determinant of whether a person will become addicted to alcohol. Even people who are genetically predisposed to alcoholism will likely experience an environmental factor that leads to actual alcohol abuse. The more environmental factors a person experiences, the more likely he or she is to eventually develop an alcohol use disorder.
Additionally, there are certain protective environmental factors that can reduce a person’s risk of alcoholism, even if he or she is genetically predisposed. These include neighborhood resources, positive parental supervision and monitoring, and success in school.
Is Alcoholism Hereditary?
Genetics and heredity are closely related. However, there are some differences. Someone who has a genetic condition has an abnormality in a genome. Someone with a hereditary disease has inherited a genetic mutation from their parents.
There have been many studies that lead researchers to believe that alcoholism is hereditary. This means that the disease would be caused by a mutation in certain genes that were passed down from a person’s parents.
People with parents who struggled with alcohol addiction are two to four times more likely to experience alcohol addiction themselves. This could mean that individuals with close family alcoholism may be more prone to inheriting the genetic mutation that contributes to alcoholism.
However, it could also mean that people with close relatives who abuse alcohol grew up in an alcohol-centric environment. A person’s environment will ultimately influence how his or her inherited genes are expressed.
Are You At Risk For Developing Alcoholism?
People who have close relatives with an alcohol use disorder are at the highest risk of developing the condition themselves. The more family members a person has with the disease, the more likely he or she inherited the genetic predisposition for alcoholism.
However, having a genetic predisposition for alcohol addiction does not automatically mean someone will go on to have this condition. There are a number of preventative things that can be done to reduce the risk of alcohol abuse and addiction.
Ways to prevent the development of an alcohol use disorder include:
- being aware of any family history of alcoholism
- knowing the symptoms of alcohol abuse and taking action if any of these symptoms arise
- maintaining healthy relationships
- developing healthy coping strategies to manage stress
- avoiding alcohol or limiting intake
Getting Help For Alcohol Addiction
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, seeking treatment is the best decision that can be made. Many people are unable to overcome an addiction to alcohol without formal treatment.
Inpatient programs are often viewed as one of the most successful treatment options for alcoholism. These programs provide an intensive recovery plan that works to help a get and stay sober. Because alcohol addiction is a chronic disease, many people will need to participate in support groups or other aftercare programs long after a treatment program is complete.
To learn more about whether alcoholism is genetic, contact a treatment specialist today.