Risk Factors & Identifiers of Alcoholism

Certain risk factors are linked to a higher likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder. Knowing your risks can help you manage your health and alcohol use.

Estimated watch time: 6 mins 30 secs


Certain risk factors are linked to a higher likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder. Factors include genetics, trauma exposure and social factors. However, these factors are not insurmountable if you are struggling with an alcohol use disorder, and having risk factors apply to you does not mean you will develop an alcohol use disorder. Instead, people struggling with alcohol use disorder can understand their personal risks and use them to inform their treatment plan.

Video Materials:


Risk Factors of Developing an Alcohol Use Disorder

This lesson will discuss risk factors for the development of an alcohol use disorder.

Let’s talk about the informing factors that may increase the likelihood that we will develop an addiction to alcohol.

Genetics may be one of the first things that comes to mind. Some individuals do have genetic markers that indicate that they are at a higher risk for developing addictive behavior. You may see this with multigenerational families that have addictions.

The grandfather, the father, the daughter.

This does not necessarily mean that if you have these genetic markers, you will develop an addiction. It is simply an indicator that you’re at higher risk, similar to having a genetic marker for certain kinds of cancer. With that knowledge, you may change the way you address your health care and you may track that more diligently than somebody who does not have that genetic marker. Another aspect of genetics is epigenetics, which is not about the genes themselves, but rather the environmental factors that dictate which genes get activated. A general example would be that a child who is born to a mother who is living in a high stress environment is going to be more sensitive and more prone to engage in a stress response than a child who is born to a mother who was exposed to a more relaxing and safe environment.

In addition to genetics, there are some psychological factors that may increase our likelihood to develop an addiction. One of the primary ones is exposure to trauma. Whether you’re an adult or a child, if you’re exposed to a traumatic event, that increases your risk to develop a substance dependence. An example would be using alcohol to help you sleep so you don’t have nightmares.

Children have an increased risk for developing substance dependence if they’ve been exposed to trauma.

If you have a chronic mental illness, this also may increase your use of substances to self-medicate. You may use alcohol to go to sleep because of your PTSD and your nightmares and flashbacks, or you may use alcohol to loosen you up to manage your social anxiety disorder. There are a number of ways that people have used substances to self-medicate when they’re struggling with mental illness.

Other factors include social factors. Let’s be honest, alcohol is accepted within cultural norms and increased alcohol consumption is accepted. If you look at movies, how do you generally see drinking? It’s often portrayed in a positive light as something fun to do on the weekends.

In the U.S., binge drinking is commonly practiced and is therefore minimized as an issue. Again, it goes sort of back to how that’s portrayed in movies. That’s what we think we’re supposed to do to have a good time.

Families can normalize drinking by parental example. If you grew up in a household where drinking is standard and common, the children are going to grow up with less of an inhibition to start drinking.

Some careers and some settings have also incorporated the use of alcohol into their culture. If we are to look at college campuses, oftentimes what you will find is the expectation is that people should go drinking on the weekends or in the evenings at different parties.

Firefighter culture also has built a lot of its interactions after work around going out for a drink.

If you use at an earlier age, this can affect your brain development and increase your risk for addictive behaviors. So simply just when you are exposed and having that exposure may dictate a different trajectory on your risk for addiction.

Exposure to unstable environments may increase our risk as well.

Other risk factors include steady drinking over time, your increased exposure to alcohol over time may lead to increased tolerance. If you increase your tolerance, then you may increase the risk for dependence and addiction.

Having bariatric surgery: there are studies that have indicated that there’s an increased risk for developing alcohol related disorders in individuals who have had bariatric surgery. The mechanism for this increased risk is not clarified, but they see a trend.

Being a woman: this is actually a very major distinction, a risk factor that often gets overlooked. Some of the reasons why are that women are generally smaller than men in stature and weight, which decreases the amount of alcohol one would need to be intoxicated. Women also have a lower water content in their body compared to men, which increases one’s blood alcohol content. You’re also at a higher risk for developing health issues such as alcoholic hepatitis, brain damage from alcohol, and alcohol related heart disease. If you’re a woman, U.S. dietary guidelines recommend no more than one drink per day.

Let’s talk about mitigating risk. You might have met any one of these criteria. This doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically have a drinking problem or that you have a drinking problem. This does not mean that you cannot overcome a drinking problem if you have one. This information may simply help us understand why we may have a stronger reaction to alcohol, why we act the way we do at times, but also how best to take care of ourselves.

Your primary focus ultimately should be a healthy you. So the questions here that should be asked is not, Am I going to become an alcoholic because I have these factors? But rather, how are you living in a healthy way? What are ways that you can take care of yourself? Do you need extra support from a counselor or a doctor? Do you need to consider changing your environment, whether it’s for the environmental risks that would increase your drinking risk, whether it’s the stress levels that may increase the risks to our children?

Multiple factors need to be taken into consideration and then looked at in a way that helps you decide what works best for you.

In the next lesson we will discuss binge drinking and how it affects both ourselves and society.

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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.