The Alcoholism Gene: Fact or Fiction?

How did this get started?

If you are among the millions of people in this country who have a parent, grandparent, sibling or other close relative with alcoholism, you may have wondered what your family’s history of alcoholism means for you.

Are problems with alcohol a part of your future? Is your risk for becoming an alcoholic greater than for people who do not have a family history of alcoholism? If so, what can you do to lower your risk? Should you start to worry about treatment for alcohol abuse?

Children of alcoholicsAlcoholism and drug dependence, like many diseases, are considered genetically complex and involve variations in a number of different genes.

Many scientific studies, including research conducted among twins and children of alcoholics, have shown that genetic factors influence alcohol abuse. These findings show that children of alcoholics are about four times more likely than the general population to develop alcohol problems and find themselves in treatment for alcohol abuse. Children of alcoholics also have a higher risk for many other behavioral and emotional problems.

However, alcoholism is not determined only by the genes you inherit from your parents.

The fact that alcoholism tends to run in families does not necessarily imply that a child of an alcoholic parent will automatically become an alcoholic too. The risk is higher but it does not have to happen.

Inherited or Learned?

Genes are not the only things children inherit from their parents. How parents act and how they treat each other and their children has an influence on children growing up in the family. These aspects of family life also affect the risk for alcoholism.

Research shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for alcoholism. Therefore, genes alone do not determine whether someone will become an alcoholic. Environmental factors, as well as genetic and environmental interactions account for the remainder of the risk.

Researchers believe a person’s risk increases if: he or she is in a family with an alcoholic parent who is depressed or has other psychological problems, both parents abuse alcohol and other drugs, or the parents’ alcohol abuse is severe leading to conflicts, aggression and violence in the family.

Understanding alcohol addiction is important in order to determine if the gene is present. An increasingly heavy drinker often says he could stop whenever he chooses; he just never “chooses” to do so. Alcoholism is not a destination, but a progression, a long road of deterioration in which life continuously worsens.

The gin mill never closes

It is true alcoholism often seems to run in families, and we may hear about scientific studies of an “alcoholism gene.” Genetics certainly influence our likelihood of developing alcoholism, but the story isn’t so simple.

Considering that alcoholism seems to run in families and so appears to be a genetic disease, there are questions concerning the fact that binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks in a row for a man, or four drinks for a woman) leads to the faster development of alcoholism.

If binge drinking can influence dependency, it would suggest the disease is also behaviorally based and not only a matter of genetics.

Multiple genes do play a role in a person’s risk for developing alcoholism. There are genes that increase a person’s risk, as well as those that may decrease that risk.

As we have learned more about the role genes play in our health, researchers have discovered that different factors can alter the expression of our genes.

The following link explains why some people become addicted to alcohol and drugs while others do not: https://ncadd.org/about-addiction/family-history-and-genetics.

Whether a person decides to use alcohol or drugs is a personal choice, influenced by multiple biological, familial, psychological and sociocultural factors. But, once a person uses alcohol or drugs, the risk of developing alcoholism or drug dependence is greatly influenced by genetics.

There is hope

While genetics make up 50% of the risk for alcohol and drug dependence, not all people who use alcohol will not end up in treatment for alcohol abuse. In fact, more than half of all children of alcoholics do not become alcoholics themselves.

Ultimately, addiction is influenced by many factors, including a person’s environment, parents, expectations of what drinking will do, and the individual response to booze in general.

And while a family history of alcohol or drug dependence is known to contribute significantly to the risk of a child developing the same condition and finding themselves in treatment for alcohol abuse, genes are not the sole determining factor of alcoholism or drug dependence.

Plenty of people have come from addicted families but managed to overcome their family history and live happy lives.

Talk to a healthcare professional. Discuss your concerns with a doctor, nurse, or other health care provider. They can recommend groups or organizations that specialize in treatment for alcohol abuse and could help you avoid drinking problems.