In America, 120 people die every day from a drug overdose, and it is now the country’s leading cause of death for people younger than 50, eclipsing the combined fatalities from motor vehicle accidents and gun homicides. This pervasive death toll is felt by nearly every American. Addiction leaves almost no individual, or family, unaffected, and has quickly become part of American culture. In many families, drug and alcohol use disorders are unwanted inheritances passed down from parents to children.

To better understand the intricacies of familial addiction, The Recovery Village surveyed approximately 400 people from across the United States. Their answers showed that addiction is a common thread in hundreds of individual family histories, and revealed ways in which the line of disease is continued, or broken, from one generation to the next.

Addiction: Part of the Family in America

In October of 2017, The Pew Research Center reported that nearly half of Americans know someone (a family member or friend) who has faced addiction. Additionally, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that approximately 25 percent of American children are raised in households where substance misuse is present.

Drug and alcohol addiction is something many Americans are exposed to early in life, often in their own homes, and it remains a constant issue in their social support circles long after childhood. This fact was echoed in The Recovery Village survey, in which almost 70 percent of respondents said that they had a history of drug or alcohol addiction in their families. The prevalence of drug and alcohol misuse in American families raises questions about how addiction originates in this setting, and why (or why not) people follow in their addicted family member’s footsteps.

Is Addiction Hereditary?

In The Recovery Village survey, participants were asked to draw parallels between their familial addiction history and their own personal substance misuse. The survey revealed thought-provoking similarities across generational lines. Alcoholism was the most commonly reported type of addiction in participants’ families, and alcohol was also the drug the respondents struggled with the most in their own lives. In addition, mental illness was singled out as the biggest contributing factor to each respondent’s family member’s addiction, and their own.

In line with these responses, nearly 52 percent of survey participants agreed with the statement, “If addiction runs in someone’s family, they are more likely to develop an addiction.” But exactly how definitive is this assessment? Understanding the accuracy of this statement demands a closer look at how addiction is passed down.

The Role of Genetics

Research shows that children whose parents misuse drugs are more than twice as likely than their peers to face a substance use disorder, and children of alcoholics are four times more likely than their peers to misuse alcohol. But does a family history of addiction truly forecast someone’s future relationship with drugs and alcohol, and is someone more likely to misuse drugs or alcohol if someone in their family already does? The short answer is “yes”, and the explanation may lie in their genetic code.

Genetic factors can influence the likelihood of someone experiencing addiction in that genes that are passed down from parent to child, over generations, can make someone predisposed to this disease. Research from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence shows that as much as half of a person’s risk of addiction stems from genetic factors inherited from their parents.

To understand this genetic connection, it’s important to realize that addiction is, by definition, a chronic disease. Many diseases (sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, etc.) are caused by mutations in individual genes, but this is not the case with addiction. Substance use disorders are complex diseases that don’t impact just a single genetic code, and variations in an array of different genes contribute to someone’s overall risk of addiction. Genetics are not the sole predictor of addiction, and are just one part of the picture when it comes to someone’s risk of experiencing the disease of addiction.

Scientists affirm that the interaction of a person’s genes, experiences and environment influence their mental and physical health. For example, in the case of high blood pressure, both genetics and lifestyle factors (diet, physical activity, etc.) influence someone’s risk of experiencing this condition, and the same is true with addiction. This means that people whose parents faced addiction aren’t destined to develop substance use disorders just because they share a genetic code.

Addiction Is a Matter of Nature, and Nurture

In addition to genetics, external factors, like someone’s environment, play a large role in the probability of addiction. In The Recovery Village survey, 14 percent of respondents thought addiction was a hereditary disease, while the majority described addiction as “a disease caused by environmental factors or experiences.” As alcoholism and drug use disorders are diseases that involve genetic and environmental influences, both answers are close to the truth. In many cases, substance use disorders are not a matter of solely nature or nurture, but of a combination of both factors. In the environmental aspect, a child’s risk of developing a substance use disorder increases if:

  • Both parents misuse drugs or alcohol
  • The parent(s) struggles with depression or another mental illness
  • Parental drug use is severe or life-threatening
  • Domestic violence or child abuse occurs

Children who face these circumstances may be genetically predisposed to addiction, but their own behavior and choices play an equal role in their risk of addiction. People who have a family history of addiction aren’t destined to become addicted themselves. The lifestyles they maintain, despite their family history, can largely determine their relationship with drugs and alcohol. And as The Recovery Village respondents affirmed, simply watching a loved one struggle with addiction is enough to make someone choose a healthier way of living.

Do Children of Addiction Follow in Their Family’s Footsteps?

Although the risk for developing a substance use disorder is higher for people whose parents misuse drugs or alcohol, it’s not a guarantee that they will become addicted. In fact, few individuals follow the example set by their addicted loved ones. Research shows that despite being more likely to misuse drugs, most individuals whose parents faced addiction do not develop substance use disorders themselves.

This reality is echoed in the results of The Recovery Village survey. While nearly 70 percent of respondents reported a history of familial addiction, 66 percent said they have never struggled with a drug or alcohol addiction. When asked how their family member’s addiction has influenced them, the majority (39 percent) of respondents said they stay away from drugs or alcohol completely.

Having a loved one who struggled with addiction, and seeing the effects of addiction first-hand, proved to be impetus enough for most survey respondents to avoid drugs and alcohol in their own lives. Forty-eight percent of survey participants asserted that drug or alcohol use has never appealed to them. Write-in explanations like, “I grew up around an addict,” and, “I’ve seen what [addiction] does to people, and I knew I needed to nip it in the bud before it ever became a problem of my own,” mark the point where familial addiction often ends. Witnessing a loved one struggle with this debilitating disease often keeps people from following suit.

Forge Your Own Path: Finding Treatment for Addiction

If addiction is a part of your family history and your own life, you’re not alone, and you’re not powerless to overcome this disease. Addiction may be in your family’s past, but it doesn’t have to be a part of your future. Whether you face alcoholism or another type of drug addiction, The Recovery Village can help you overcome substance use disorder in a safe and supportive environment. Offering a full continuum of care at centers across the country, The Recovery Village has a program to meet your needs, no matter the length or intensity of your addiction. To get started with treatment, call The Recovery Village today at 888.962.9624 to speak with a representative who can answer your questions and guide you toward the help you deserve.

Camille Renzoni
By – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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.