Genetics, as well as a variety of social and environmental factors, can play a role in the development of alcohol addiction.

Article at a Glance:

Genetics play a significant role in the risks of alcohol dependence and addiction.

Alcohol-related risks can also be affected by environmental and social factors.

It is important to understand your risks and find ways to minimize them.

Hereditary Alcoholism

Alcohol is a legal and easily accessible substance, meaning that many people are exposed to it throughout their lives. While small amounts of alcohol are not dangerous for most people, some individuals may consume larger amounts and develop alcoholism as a result. Alcoholism is a maladaptive pattern of drinking that can cause serious problems, including:

  • Cirrhosis
  • Pancreatitis
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Breast cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome

It can also cause social and psychological damage and significantly impair relationships and job performance.

Frequent exposure to alcohol and other substances can increase the risk of addiction. In particular, early exposure can heighten the risk of gaining a physical dependency on alcohol, especially in a familial setting. However, scientists also argue that genetics play a significant role in the risk of developing alcoholism and the likelihood of hereditary effects.

Symptoms of Alcoholism

Alcohol abuse can result in a variety of negative side effects and behaviors, including:

  • Problems limiting alcohol consumption
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Liver damage

Continue reading at Alcohol Side Effects →

Alcoholism and Genetics

Genetics help determine our traits, behaviors and personality characteristics. Some of these traits are passed down from parents to their children. As a result, it’s possible for families with a history of alcoholism to pass down those tendencies to later generations. Genetics, as well as social and environmental factors, strongly influence alcohol dependency.

Many studies related to the children of alcoholic parents show there are genetic factors that influence alcoholism. In fact, some studies found that approximately 45% to 65% of risks related to alcoholism may be caused by genetic factors. These studies show that children with a family history of alcohol addiction are twice as likely as the general population to suffer from alcohol-related issues.

Is There an Alcoholic Gene?

Research is proving that alcoholism is a complex genetic disease, and there are many genes that affect its risks. For example, the ADH1B and ALDH2 genes have been shown to have strong effects on alcoholism risks. Other genes, including GABRA2, CHRM2, KCNJ6, and AUTS2, may also significantly affect risks.

In addition to affecting alcohol addiction risks, these genetic factors may lead to increased alcohol consumption and heighten the risk of alcohol-related diseases, including certain cancers. In fact, new data suggests that there may be even more genetic variants involved in alcohol dependence.

Still, there isn’t one specific alcoholic gene that makes a person addicted to alcohol. Instead, environmental and social factors play a large role in the outcome.

Genetic vs. Hereditary Alcoholism

People often wonder if alcoholism is hereditary or genetic. While there are differences between genetics and heredity, the terms are mostly interchangeable when talking about alcohol addiction.

“Genetics” refers to a person’s DNA. The gene is the main physical unit that passes inheritance from a parent to their child. A condition that is genetic can also be hereditary. “Heredity” refers to a mutation in a person’s genes that is passed from generation to generation. Common hereditary mental illnesses include autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression.

As it relates to alcoholism, genes, environment and social interaction can all affect a person’s risk level for alcohol addiction.

Environmental Factors of Hereditary Alcoholism

People with a family history of alcoholism have the highest risk of struggling with alcohol use. However, environmental and social factors can increase or reduce this genetic risk.

Social factors can either prevent or encourage alcohol use. Society, community and social networks all play a part. Laws prohibit use below a certain age, which helps prevent young people from drinking. However, friends and peers who drink can provide both the opportunity and pressure to use alcohol. Social and cultural norms regarding drinking and alcohol availability can also play a part. A family’s stance on alcohol use can influence a person’s use as well.

Environmental factors are also important to consider. Poverty, childhood abuse, lack of family stability and high levels of socioeconomic disadvantage — especially when experienced from childhood into adulthood — are associated with higher levels of alcohol use.  Factors that reduce risks include increased opportunities, access to education, stable work and healthy family environments.

Tips for Reducing Alcoholism Risks

Alcohol is highly addictive and often used to self-medicate in the face of environmental and social triggers, mental health concerns and other stressors. It can create feelings of happiness and freedom, also referred to as a buzz, which allows people to temporarily escape from financial woes, stress, family issues and other struggles. For many people, drinking alcohol is also a social activity and is perceived as a way to fit in, especially while underage.

To prevent the chance of becoming addicted to alcohol, consider the following tips:

  • Know your family history: If your family is more susceptible to alcoholism, it’s important to understand your risks and triggers. Drink in moderation and know your limits.
  • Avoid underage drinking: Underage drinking is illegal, and it also increases the likelihood of irresponsible drinking and alcohol dependency in adulthood.
  • Seek counseling: People who struggle with drinking are recommended to seek outside help. Licensed counselors can teach strategies that help people avoid the temptation of alcohol use.
  • Monitor social circles: Surround yourself with like-minded people. If you are not fond of drinking, hang out with people who feel the same as you do.
  • Know the symptoms of addiction: Be mindful of your behaviors if you do choose to drink. Take everything in moderation and understand the potential consequences.

Getting Help for Alcoholism

The recovery journey does not have to be taken alone. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol abuse, The Recovery Village is here to help. Our individualized treatment programs help people recover from alcohol addiction and begin the path toward a happier, healthier life. Contact us today to learn more about addiction recovery programs that can work well for your needs.

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Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Audrey Howitt, JD, LMFT
Audrey Howitt is a Marriage and Family Therapist licensed through the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. Read more

Edenberg, H.J., Foroud, T. ” Genetics and alcoholism.” Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 2013. Accessed September 11, 2021.

Levey, D., Le-Niculescu, H., Frank, J., et al. “Genetic risk prediction and neurobiologi[…]anding of alcoholism.” Translational Psychiatry, 2014. Accessed September 12, 2021.

Physiopedia. “Genetic Conditions and Inheritance.” Accessed September 12, 2021.

Chartier, K.G., Karriker-Jaffe, K.J., Cummings, C.R., Kendler, K.S. ” Review: Environmental influences on alco[…]rse U.S. populations.” The American Journal on Addictions, August 2017. Accessed September 12, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

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.