Alcoholism, medically known as alcohol use disorder, refers to an addiction to alcohol, the number one most abused substance in the U.S. Those who struggle with this disease are not alone; a reported 15.1 million people over the age of 18 have alcohol use disorder. Despite its prevalence, alcoholism is also one of the most misunderstood diseases and many with a history of alcohol abuse find it difficult to escape the stigma of their pasts. Public misinformation often characterizes alcoholics as orchestrators of their own misery, but the complexities of this disease paint a different picture. The spectrum of alcoholism ranges from mild to severe, with some addicts living seemingly functional and normal lives. To better understand alcohol use disorder, we must first understand what causes it. Is alcoholism hereditary? Is it genetic? Or something else entirely? Together, let’s explore the causes of alcoholism and the role that genes play in the development of this disease.
What is Alcoholism?
Before we dive into genetics, we should start with the basics. As described above, alcoholism is an addiction to alcohol. What defines this addiction, however, is a little more complicated. There are generally eleven qualities that a clinician will look for in an individual to identify alcohol use disorder. Criteria include excessive drinking, cravings for alcohol, interferences in the person’s daily life due to alcohol, exhibiting alcohol withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, and putting oneself in dangerous situations involving alcohol. A person does not need to exhibit all eleven characteristics to be considered an alcoholic. A mild case of alcoholism can involve two or three qualities while the most severely affected may possess six or more of the items on the list of criteria noted in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.
Is Alcoholism Genetic or Hereditary?
You may know families that have a history of generational alcoholism, with many members of the family falling into patterns of alcohol abuse. There is a reason for this. Let’s look at each of these predicaments individually to garner a better understanding of what these terms mean in the framework of alcohol use disorder.
Genetics and Alcoholism
Genes are what makes up the strands of our DNA. Each gene has a particular part to play in the overall function of your body. Every piece of your DNA comes together to make the genome which, in turn, makes you the living, breathing human being you are. Genetic diseases are caused by abnormalities in the genome. When a genetic disease is present, it means the DNA structure of that gene has been corrupted, causing the gene to be unable to carry out its normal function. Think of this concept like a car. If a mechanic doesn’t properly fit each component into the engine correctly, then the car won’t run the way it’s supposed to. When thinking about the way that genetics can affect alcoholism, it may be helpful to remember the lessons you learned in your grade school biology classes. Do you remember the finches on the Galapagos islands that Charles Darwin studied so closely? What he found is that certain traits are passed on from generation to generation. Generally, the most useful traits will displace the less ideal qualities over time, but this, of course, is not without exceptions. While we certainly are a bit different than finches, this study applies to all living things. Because parents pass down their DNA to their children, genetic disorders can be passed onto their offspring. Though they differ in type and severity, genetic diseases occur in about one out of every two hundred births. Studies show that there are several combinations of genomic patterns that cause a predisposition for alcoholism, though there is not one, single isolated gene fingered as the culprit.
Hereditary and Alcoholism
Heredity describes the passing of genes from one generation to another. When we’re conceived, our bodies receive a series of codes in the form of DNA from our parents that comprise our genetic makeup, making us into the people we are today. Think of this idea like a puzzle. Members of your family contribute puzzle pieces that eventually become a complete picture of you! However, sometimes the pieces that are donated to your puzzle are a little bent or don’t fit quite right, meaning some traits are not preferable. For example, the gene for alcoholism can be passed down intergenerationally. Genes can be both physical and mental, which allows disorders that affect the mind and body, or both like alcohol does, to be passed from parents to offspring.
Heredity v. Genetics
Do these earthly phenomenons seem very similar? Well, that’s because they are. Heredity and genetics are often referred to interchangeably or combined together in the same breath. One concept can hardly be discussed without also mentioning the other. However, there are subtle differences between the two that set them apart. Genetic diseases are characterized by an abnormality in a genome. A person can have this gene whether or not their family members have passed this disorder onto them. A hereditary disease, on the other hand, means that a specific sequence of DNA abnormality was inherited from generations before. So when answering the question of whether alcoholism is genetic or hereditary, the answer is that it could be both. Genetics are said to be an influential factor in the development of alcohol use disorder. In a study conducted by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), it was concluded that genetics have as much as between a 40 and 50% impact the on the likelihood of alcohol use disorder. That being said, those numbers mean that a person with a genetic predisposition for alcoholism is about just as likely to become an alcoholic as they are to not become an alcoholic. Though genetics can play a factor, they are not an unavoidable destiny nor should they be used as a scapegoat by those dealing with alcohol use disorder. A person can inherit certain traits from their parents that will be held dormant in the body. These are called recessive traits. For example, both your parents may have brown hair, but you have blonde hair. This recessive trait was passed down within your family, even though it didn’t show up on your parents physically. The same can be said about alcoholism. Maybe you have a grandparent on one side of your family that struggled with alcohol use disorder. However, your parent was able to abstain from alcohol abuse. You may still have this hereditary combination of genes, but it doesn’t mean that it will cause you to have an addiction to alcohol.
Environmental Factors and Alcoholism
Now that we’ve gone over the genetic and hereditary aspects of alcoholism, it’s time to explore other factors that contribute to the development of this addiction. After all, both an individual’s parents may have never had a drop of alcohol in their lifetime, but a person may still end up with a problem with alcohol. Some say that environmental factors actually have the biggest impact on whether or not a person will become addicted to alcohol.
So, how does alcohol affect families? Unsurprisingly, growing up in an environment where alcohol abuse is present and visible can increase the chances of a child becoming an alcoholic someday. For example, if a parent in the home struggles with alcoholism, the child is 3-4 more likely to develop this issue than they would be if alcohol abuse was displaced from their home environment. When alcoholism is removed from the child’s immediate environment, such as a distant aunt or Grandpa that lives three states away, that risk significantly decreases. The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, we are each made completely of DNA donated by each of our parents, meaning that there could be a heightened chance of a genetic predisposition for alcoholism. Second, we are strongly influenced, especially during our formative years, by the environment around us. What’s normalized in our environment growing up tends to be what we accept as standard behavior. If families view drinking as an everyday necessity or encourage binge drinking, that forms our ideas about what constitutes a healthy relationship with alcohol. Alcohol may also cause aggression, creating a hostile home environment and cause those experiencing this trauma to seek comfort in substances. Whether or not alcoholism is present in the home, other kinds of abuse experienced during childhood can also have detrimental effects on the individuals who survive these atrocities. A strong correlation exists between a history of abuse and the development of alcoholism. Studies show that women with alcohol use disorder, in particular, are more likely to have been abused or neglected as children than those that don’t struggle with alcoholism. While our family life may have an enormous impact on an individual’s risk of alcoholism, it is not the only factor at play. Our environment is also constructed by our peers, our neighborhood, and socioeconomic bracket.
Social Life, Peer Pressure, and Environment
It’s no secret that alcohol is often consumed socially, especially during the late teens and early 20’s. 71% of people between the ages of 21 and 29 report that they drink alcohol. The newfound freedom college students experience and the pressure to drink at parties can often encourage binge drinking behavior in that age group as well. Drinking in excess during the early years can actually amplify an individual’s chances of developing alcohol use disorder. This is especially true for those who begin drinking before the age of 15. Big life transitions, like moving to a new city or starting a new job, can also cause excess drinking in those looking to connect with new friends or take the edge off. 31% of millennials say that they drink to feel more comfortable around new people since alcohol tends to dull our inhibitions. Using alcohol as a crutch, however, can be a slippery slope. Not only is it difficult to truly get to know someone while intoxicated, but it can also lead to dangerous behavior like drinking and driving or violence. Maintaining friendships with people who have unhealthy habits can also be a risky situation. Our peers are also a huge part of our environment and we tend to normalize the behavior we are accustomed to, even when that behavior is dangerous. Studies show that alcohol use is also more prevalent in certain income brackets. While many may think that alcohol consumption is more common at lower income levels, it’s actually quite the opposite. In fact, 78% of people who have a household income of $75,000 or more drink alcohol as opposed to the 45% of persons with a household income of $30,000 or less. Educational levels also present a strong trend in drinking habits. In the U.S., 80% of college graduates drink whereas only 52% of non-college graduates say they drink. While drinking may not be in excess, the commonness of alcohol in a person’s environment makes drinking more accessible.
The Cause of Alcoholism
If after reading this you think it sounds like there is no one specific cause of alcoholism, you would be correct! There are a variety of influences that affect a person’s likelihood of experiencing alcohol use disorder during their lifetime. The main causes of alcoholism are genetic predisposition, hereditary genes, and environmental factors. Genetics and environmental aspects are essentially tied neck and neck for the most influential factor in the development of alcoholism. While genetics may take as much as 50% of the blame, individuals with a genetic predisposition for alcoholism are more likely to avoid this addiction by living in a happy, healthy environment. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use disorder, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional for help. We understand the causes, effects, and symptoms of alcoholism and are here to help. Contact us today! Sources: https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/symptoms-and-signs/hereditary-or-genetic https://www.alcohol.org/alcoholism/ https://www.alcoholrehabguide.org/alcohol/ https://www.originsrecovery.com/what-is-alcoholism/ https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics https://www.addictioncenter.com/alcohol/genetics-of-alcoholism/ https://www.addictioncenter.com/alcohol/alcoholism-causes-risk-factors/ https://www.collagegroup.com/2018/01/08/millennials-alcohol/