Alcoholism and Genetics
Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : November 11,
2020 | 4 Sources
Genes do seem to play a role in the development of alcoholism, yet there are other causes also
Alcohol dependence or alcoholism, the most serious alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a complicated genetic condition. Alcoholism has been considered to run in families, but that notion alone isn’t sufficient enough to show that genetic factors add up to the risks. In fact, studies show that genetics is responsible for approximately half of the risk for AUD.
Moreover, there are many who believe, and research seems to back them up, that the child of an alcoholic mother or father is more likely to become drink dependent.
In other words there is a link between alcoholism and genetics.
Statistics seem to support the alcoholism genetics link:
- The COGA (the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism) states that the child of a drink dependent parent is 4 to 9 times more likely to develop the same problem.
- Another study suggests that 95% of alcoholics had or have a close family member with a drink problem.
- 20-25% of sons and daughters of alcoholics become drink dependent.
Looking at this evidence it seems that there is a strong hereditary factor at play.
However, the picture is slightly more complicated than this.......
Environmental Alcoholism vs. Genetic Alcoholism
The problem lies in determining whether a person’s drinking problem is genetic or environmental.
Let’s take an example....
.... a man who has an alcoholic father becomes an alcoholic himself. Is this because one of his parents carries a specific alcoholism gene or genes that he has passed on to his son? Or is it because the son grew up in a household where alcohol flowed freely, where stress and frustration were ‘cured’ at the bottom of a bottle? Or perhaps it is a combination of both?
Difficult to say, but....
Twin Studies Seem to Support Alcoholism and Genetics Link
A number of studies have been carried out on twins which have investigated this link further.
Results show that identical twins (physically and genetically identical) are more likely to BOTH develop alcoholism than fraternal twins (not genetically identical).
Results also show that identical MALE twins are more likely to be both drink dependent than female identical twins.
Moreover more severe drinking problems are more likely to be inherited than less severe ones.
But this doesn’t rule out environmental factors.
Identical twins are generally brought up in the same household and both experience and ‘learn’ from that environment.
In order to rule out the environmental influence researchers studied identical twins who had been adopted separately.
These studies seemed to support the alcoholism genetics argument.
Regardless of whether the adoptees were brought up in an alcoholic or non-alcoholic household, identical twins were still more likely to be drink dependent than fraternal twins.
So research tends to point to a an alcoholism genetics link, yet the data is by no means conclusive. Research is still ongoing in this area.
A lot of time, expertise and money is being spent on these studies because....
Why it's Important to Know if Alcoholism and Genetics are Linked
There are three major reasons why establishing a link between alcoholism and genetics would be useful:
- if there is an ‘alcoholism gene’ then it is possible to identify those at risk and to act. Warn them; give advice, counseling, therapy etc.
- it would help us to understand the environmental factors better.
- It could also help us better understand the alcoholism disease. Maybe it would lead us eventually to an alcoholism cure.
Alcoholism and Genetics
Personality is Hereditary NOT Alcoholism
There are some in the field who claim that yes, drink addiction is genetic, but there is no alcoholism gene as such.
Rather it is the personality type (which is more susceptible to drink dependence) that is passed from generation to generation.
This personality type is one that is more prone to anxiety and depression.
Researchers say that 30%-70% of alcoholics show these characteristics. In order to cope with their feelings this ‘type’ tends to self-medicate with alcohol.
Over time this leads to dependence on the ‘medication’.
CHILDREN OF ALCOHOLICS ARE MORE LIKELY TO.....
- Suffer from drug and drink problems.
- Have an addictive personality.
- Suffer from depression and anxiety.
- Be more tense and stressed. They won’t have the same coping skills as other children and later, adults.
- Be risk takers and seek the attention of others.
- Not do well at school or get on with their peers and teachers.
- Have a higher risk for many other behavioral and emotional problems.
Alcoholism and Genetics
Predestined to Drink?
So are the children of drink dependent grandparents, parents, siblings destined to a life ‘on the bottle’?
In a word, no! An emphatic, NO!
It all comes down to choice.
Yes, the child of alcoholic parents is probably more likely to become alcoholic but, and this is a big BUT, it all comes down to choice. He or she can choose not to take the first drink. Also, alcoholism may likewise be related to lifestyle, environment, as well as other nongenetic factors that are shared by members of a family.
The genetic component of alcoholism does not condemn the child of an addicted parent. The risk is higher but it is not their destiny. Awareness is the key.
Support for Children of Alcoholics
The child of an alcoholic, whether still a child or now an adult, can be supported in a number of ways:
- It is important that the child of an alcoholic knows that teenage drinking (particularly before the age of 15) greatly increases his/her chances of becoming alcoholic. In fact they are 50% more likely to become alcoholic than someone who has their first drink at 18 (and this does not take other factors into consideration e.g. genes, environment, etc).
- Counseling and/or therapy can be offered. This is good for exploring issues, feelings, memories, teaching coping skills and so on. There are all kinds of therapy and counseling offered these days and it is always best to get a recommendation from somebody before approaching a professional. If you can’t get a recommendation then make sure that whoever you are going to belongs to the relevant regulatory professional body.
- ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) is an organization along the same lines as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) which offers support and an outlet for those who have/had a drink dependent parent. This is a 12 Step group and has a strong spiritual element. Not to everyone’s taste but it can be of great benefit. It costs nothing but time so why not give it a try. Remember it’s anonymous.
Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl
Licensed Medical Health Professional
I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More
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