Is Alcoholism Genetic? Here’s What You Need to Know
Anecdotal evidence shows that alcohol misuse can result from genetic factors. Today, studies have shown that genes could predispose a person to alcohol dependence. Research like this could help identify people who have a higher risk of misusing alcohol so it can be mitigated and treated appropriately.
Alcoholism Statistics in the United States
According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 14.5 million people in the US suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD). This encompasses issues often referred to as alcohol dependence, alcohol misuse, alcohol addiction, and even the oft-used term—alcoholism. To know the severity of this problem, consider these numbers:
- According to NSDUH data, there are 414,000 adolescents (ages 12 to 17) suffering from AUD. Of these numbers, 251,000 are females and 163,000 are males.
- Between 2006 to 2014, there was a 47% increase in alcohol-related emergencies and deaths.
- Approximately 95,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year.
- Alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the US.
- In 2019, alcohol-related deaths account for 28% (10,142) of the total driving fatalities.
- Of the 85,688 deaths due to liver diseases, 43.1% are alcohol-related.
Alcohol use disorder has become a prevalent problem that affects even the youth. And thus, the question arises—is alcoholism genetic? Scientists and those in the medical field know there’s too much riding on the answer to this one question.
Our genes determine our physical traits and to some extent, our behavioral characteristics. Genes are made up of DNA, the hereditary material that’s inherited from parents.
1. Heredity and Genetics From a Medical Perspective
While heredity and genetics are closely linked words, they can mean different things from a medical perspective. With hereditary diseases, the illness stems from the parents’ DNA. This is then passed to their offspring. Genetic diseases, on the other hand, are illnesses that are caused by mutations in the person’s DNA.
2. Is Alcoholism Genetic?
A 2008 study performed at the University of Colorado investigated the genetic pathways that affected alcohol drinking behaviors. The team discovered that the alcohol drinking behavior pathway is linked to the reward and pleasure center of the brain. They further concluded that different genetic factors predispose people to alcoholism.
Experts from Alcoholism in Maryland and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse discovered that genetic factors account for 40-60% variance between people at risk for alcohol dependence. It’s important to note that no one gene predisposes a person to alcoholism. Rather, it’s a variety of interconnected factors that increases a person’s risk for this addiction. Here are some genetic variations that scientists are studying:
Genes That Affect Alcohol Metabolism
People with enzyme variants that allow for the fast buildup of acetaldehyde from alcohol (ethanol) are at less risk for addiction compared to those who metabolize alcohol efficiently to acetate. This is because people with acetaldehyde buildup are more likely to have troublesome reactions. They would experience nausea, flushing, and rapid heartbeat even with moderate amounts of liquor. The unpleasant symptoms of drinking “protects” them from consuming too much alcohol.
Gene Alteration in the Amygdala
An experiment using rats at Linköping University in Sweden discovered that those with reduced expression of the gene GAT-3 become addicted to alcohol. This gene codes for a protein that influences the levels of GABA. This brain chemical that’s widely thought to be involved in alcohol dependence.
In collaboration with a co-author from the University of Texas, the researchers took brain samples of deceased people who suffered from alcohol use disorder. They discovered those samples have lower GAT-3 in the amygdala as well.
Genes That Affect Mental Illness
There are gene variations that could predispose a person to mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. People with mental illness are more prone to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
3. Is Alcoholism Hereditary?
Can children inherit genetic materials from their parents that increase their vulnerability to alcohol? Several notable studies have been conducted to answer this question.
Study of Twins
An extensive study at the University of Washington and University of Queensland followed the lives of 5,889 male and female twins. The group was composed of fraternal and identical twins. Fraternal twins don’t share the same genes while identical twins have the same genes. So if heredity is a risk factor in alcoholism, there should be a high concordance rate of identical twins. Concordance rate refers to the probability that two people with the same genes develop the same disease. The study discovered that:
- Among female identical twins, if one twin is an alcoholic, there’s a 30% probability of the other one becoming an alcoholic at some point in their life. Among male identical twins, if one twin misuses alcohol, the other one has a 50% risk of becoming addicted to alcohol.
- Among female fraternal twins, there’s a 16% chance that both twins will become alcoholics. While male fraternal twins have a 33% risk of both becoming alcoholics. There’s not much difference in the rate of risk for men in the general population to develop alcohol dependence.
Based on these findings, heredity is one of the risk factors that predispose a person to AUD. But it’s not the sole determinant of alcohol dependence.
Heritability of Alcoholism in Families
The University of Cambridge published a review of 12 studies involving twins and adopted children. The review aims to determine the heritability of AUD. They concluded that alcoholism is approximately 50% heritable. This review supports what most people knew all along—alcoholism, to some extent, runs in the family.
Genes vs. Environment
The studies show heredity and gene variations could increase a person’s vulnerability to alcohol. But the same studies also show that genetics is just half the equation. The study on identical twins shows that although people who share the same genetic materials have an increased predisposition to alcoholism, 70% of the women and 50% of the men were still able to forge a different path from their alcoholic twin.
Behavioral traits dictated by genetic materials still have to interact with environmental factors. Both serve as the basis of our day-to-day decisions. In fact, most genetically predisposed people have experienced environmental triggers first before they turn to alcohol.
For instance, people with genetic risk factors who have gone through childhood trauma are more likely to turn to alcohol than those who don’t. And people who have genetic risk factors but grew up in loving homes are less likely to become an alcoholic. The more risk factors a person has, whether genetic or environmental, the greater the likelihood of abusing alcohol.
Environmental risk factors for alcoholism include:
1. Accessibility to Alcohol
There’s a lesser incidence of alcohol misuse in places where alcohol is very expensive or hard to buy. Interestingly, in the United States, family wealth is also a significant factor. Individuals from families with an annual household income of more than $75,000 are more likely to become an alcoholic than those with lower means.
Individuals handle stress differently. But people in high-stress work environments are more likely to consume alcohol heavily than those who don’t.
3. Home Environment
Children who lack parental supervision and those who are in an abusive home are more prone to turn to alcohol.
4. Social Factors
Peer pressure is also an important factor, especially with adolescents. If an adolescent’s friends drink heavily, he or she is more likely to drink just to conform. In addition, religious background and culture may also play a role in a person’s decision-making. A person is more prone to consuming alcohol if it is deemed acceptable to one’s faith and society.
Aside from risk factors, there are also positive “protective” factors that make a person less susceptible to alcohol addiction. These factors make people resilient even though they are in a high-risk environment.
These factors include:
- Safe community with access to adequate resources.
- Stable home with close parental guidance and ample support.
- Strong policies against alcohol.
- Educational opportunities and good grades.
Are You at Risk of Becoming an Alcoholic?
If there’s a history of alcoholism in the family, you have a higher risk of developing AUD. The more close relatives you have who suffer from this condition, the higher your risk. However, knowing your family history of addiction shouldn’t make you feel hopeless as if you’re bound to the same fate. Instead, the awareness should prod you to protect yourself from the damage that alcohol could bring upon your life and health.
Here are some ways you can do just that:
- Have a strong support system and maintain close ties with your family.
- Cultivate healthy friendships.
- Seek counseling when necessary.
- Learn to manage stress.
Be Aware of the Early Signs of Alcohol Addiction
If you or a loved one has a high risk for alcohol addiction, knowing the early warning signs of dependence helps. It’s important to seek intervention at the early onset of dependence. Withdrawal symptoms may be more bearable at this stage.
To diagnose alcohol use disorder and its severity, clinicians from the American Psychiatric Association issued the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This manual provides 11 criteria to diagnose the disorder.
- Consuming alcohol over a longer period of time or in larger amounts than the person intended.
- Inability to cut down or control alcohol consumption.
- A strong craving for alcohol.
- Spending so much effort to buy, consume, and recover from the after-effects of alcohol.
- Inability to fulfill obligations and responsibilities at home, in the workplace, or at school due to alcohol use.
- Social and interpersonal conflicts arising from the continued use of alcohol and its behavioral effects.
- Continued alcohol consumption even in situations where it is considered dangerous (i.e. driving, swimming, or operating heavy machinery).
- Giving up hobbies and other important social and work-related activities because of alcohol use.
- Continued use of alcohol even when it’s taking a toll on physical and mental health.
- Developing alcohol tolerance. People with tolerance experience diminished effects of the same amount of alcohol consumed. They may feel the need to increase the amount to achieve the desired effect.
- Experiencing withdrawal, a set of unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms, when one attempts to stop using alcohol.
If a person experiences any 2 to 3 symptoms, he or she will be diagnosed with mild alcohol use disorder. Any 4 to 5 symptoms are considered moderate and 6 or more are considered severe. Treatment will largely depend on the severity of the condition.
People with mild AUD may just need to commit to an outpatient program. Those with moderate or severe disorders may need to go through a medically supervised detoxification program. And they may need to attend a series of therapy sessions in a treatment center.
Zinnia Health Can Help
Are you suffering from alcohol use disorder? You have to know that you can rise above the addiction. Your genes may predispose you to it, but you don’t have to let it define you or dictate the choices you make. You can make better choices starting now.