A combination of genetic factors and the environment can impact the risk of alcoholism in your family. Learn why alcoholism tends to run in families.
Article at a Glance:
- Alcoholism is often called a family disease because it can affect an entire family and runs in families.
- The interaction between alcoholism and genetics can explain why the condition runs in families.
- According to recent research, genetics are responsible for about 50% of a person’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder.
- Environmental factors also cause alcoholism to run in families and contribute to children’s risk of substance use disorders.
Alcoholism & Genetics
Some underlying genetic issues can lead to alcoholism or increase the likelihood of drinking becoming a problem. Remember, research has shown that genetics are responsible for about 50% of the risk a person has for developing alcohol use disorder.
One of the genes that can play a role in alcoholism includes genetic components that impact alcohol metabolism. One particular genetic variation called the ALDH2*2 allele has been shown to reduce the risk of alcoholism by ten times. This genetic variant is common in Asian populations and is thought to explain the lower risk of alcoholism in this group.
While alcoholism and genetics can explain why the condition runs in families, it’s important to realize this isn’t the only reason. It’s also not guaranteed, as about half of the risk is due to factors aside from genetics.
Why Alcoholism Runs in Families
One of the most common questions people have surrounding alcoholism is whether or not it’s genetic, and if so, what happens when alcoholism runs in the family.
It’s difficult to directly answer the question of whether or not alcoholism and genetics go hand-in-hand. Alcoholism itself is a complicated disease, but there do seem to be genetic links involved.
For example, a review of 12 different adoption and twin studies found that genetics explain roughly 50% of alcohol use disorder developments, showing a strong link between alcoholism and genetics.
Additional research has shown that alcoholism is more likely among individuals whose parents abuse alcohol, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that alcoholism and genetics are always to blame. For instance, parental alcohol abuse can be linked to other adverse circumstances, such as abuse, neglect and poverty. These difficult situations may lead children to use substances to cope. If their parents drink heavily, children may also feel that alcohol abuse is normal and acceptable, which places them at a higher risk of alcohol addiction.
Alcoholism, clinically labeled as alcohol use disorder, tends to run in families. Research shows that the development of an alcohol use disorder depends about 50% on genetics. Alcohol use disorder can occur across multiple generations, and people who have parents with a history of alcohol abuse are at a higher risk of developing alcoholism. However, several factors can protect people against an alcohol use disorder, even if they have a family history of the condition.
Factors like strong family bonds, close ties to institutions, and academic success can all help prevent the development of alcoholism. If someone has a family history of alcohol addiction but protective factors are in place, alcoholism can skip a generation. On the other hand, alcoholism can become a pattern that affects multiple generations in a row.
Living with an Alcoholic Family Member
Alcoholism is frequently called a family disease, and this is for many complex reasons. Living with an alcoholic can have negative consequences for the entire family. The person addicted to alcohol may have unpleasant symptoms when they drink:
- Become so preoccupied with their addiction that they can’t dedicate time to their spouse and children
- Act aggressive, dishonest or violent, making them difficult to get along with
- Experience negative impacts on their finances, work, school and other commitments, which can impact the people close to the alcoholic
These environmental factors are only part of the full picture. The interaction between alcoholism and genetics can impact whether or not a family member also becomes an alcoholic.
The First Drink
While alcoholism itself is a legitimate medical condition referred to by clinicians as an alcohol use disorder, it’s important to note that taking the first drink is a choice, particularly when alcoholism runs in the family. When someone decides to drink for the first time, particularly if alcoholism runs in their family, they are putting themselves at risk of becoming addicted.
One recent study even found that male children who lived with alcoholic parents took their first drink of alcohol at younger ages compared to those without alcoholic parents. Taking their first drink earlier puts them at risk of future problems with alcohol. Research has shown that those who begin drinking between the ages of 11 and 14 are significantly more likely to develop alcohol addictions than those who have their first drink at age 19 or later.
Related Topic: Is Alcohol a Drug
Some of the reasons that alcoholism tends to run in families have nothing to do with genetics. Instead, it’s about the environment alcohol creates for children. A child living with an alcoholic parent may experience a chaotic, disruptive and even harmful environment, and this can contribute to the development of a substance use disorder. A parent who abuses alcohol may be prone to aggression, violence, psychological problems and financial difficulties, which can create a painful experience for children.
If you’re worried about what happens when alcoholism and your genetics interact, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. First, avoid underage drinking: not only is it illegal, but it’s also been shown to increase your chance of becoming an alcoholic. It’s important that as an adult, you drink moderately, if at all. Moderate drinking is defined as no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one per day for women.
You can also speak with your doctor or a mental health care provider if you have concerns about the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic when alcoholism runs in the family. If you are seeking treatment for problem alcohol use in yourself or a loved one, The Recovery Village has locations across the country and is here to help. Contact ustoday to explore treatment options.
Verhulst, B; Neale, MC; and Kendler, KS. “The heritability of alcohol use disorder[…]nd adoption studies.” Psychological Medicine, August 29, 2014. Accessed July 17, 2021.
Anda, Robert F. et al. “Adverse childhood experiences, alcoholic[…]lism and depression.” Psychiatric Services, August 2002. Accessed July 17, 2021.
Spatz Widom, Cathay and Hiller-Sturmhöfel, Susanne. “Alcohol Abuse as a Risk Factor for and C[…]ence of Child Abuse.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed July 17, 2021.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed July 17, 2021.
Berent, Dominika, and Wojnar, Marcin. “Does Parental Alcohol Use Influence Chil[…] Alcohol Dependence.” Healthcare, July 3, 2021. Accessed July 17, 2021.
Dewitt, D.J. et al. “Age at first alcohol use: a risk factor […]f alcohol disorders.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, May 2000. Accessed July 17, 2021.
Quertemont, E. “Genetic polymorphism in ethanol metaboli[…]abuse and alcoholism.” Molecular Psychiatry, May 26, 2004. Accessed July 17, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol.” December 29, 2020. Accessed July 18, 2021.
Deak, JD; Miller, AP; et al. “Genetics of alcohol use disorder: a revi[…]der: a review.” Current Opinion in Psychology, June 2019. Accessed January 23, 2022.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Risk and Protective Factors in Drug Abus[…]se Prevention.” February 1, 2002. Accessed January 23, 2022.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.