Genetics: Does Alcoholism Run In The Family?

How Genetics Play a Role in Alcoholism

The abuse of alcohol is a widespread problem in the United States, 18 million adults (about 1/12 of the population) struggles with alcohol abuse.  As many as 100,000 people die from alcohol abuse in a given year, largely due to damage to the liver and other major organs.  There are two major causes of alcoholism: genetic inheritance and environment.  Alcoholism is often thought of as a family disease, since children whose parents abused alcohol are more likely to abuse alcohol themselves.  Is this proof of a genetics being the origin for alcoholism?  Not necessarily, since environment plays a role as well.

Genetic Influences

Clearly, genetic inheritance plays a role in increasing the risk that a person will abuse alcohol.  In fact, more than one gene is involved in predisposing a person to the abuse of alcohol.  People of Asian descent, for example may have a variant of a gene which causes them to experience uncomfortable results when they drink, discouraging the development of Alcohol Use Disorder among them.  Other people have a smaller amygdala (a part of the brain that plays a role in cravings) than normal.  Some people have a gene which results in fewer warning signals from their brains or bodies that they need to stop drinking.  Unusual levels of serotonin (one of the two primary pleasure neurotransmitters) are often found in people who develop Alcohol Use Disorder.  Overall, some people are predisposed to having fewer negative effects and greater positive effects when they consume alcohol.  A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reported that genetics plays about 50% of the role in the development of alcohol abuse.

Environmental Influences

A survey conducted in 2011 found that children of alcoholics have as much as a fourfold increase in the risk of abusing alcohol, though less than 50% of them actually do.  While genetic inheritance plays a role, environment and learned behaviors also play a role in how a person perceives and uses alcohol.  That means that genetics is not the only influence on the development of Alcohol Use Disorder.  By way of example, a person may have a genetic predisposition to obesity, but this predisposition is also influenced by such things as levels of physical activity and issues of body image.

Excessive alcohol use may influence a person to abuse alcohol by elevating the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters.  When the brain determines that there is an unusually high level of dopamine, it will adjust to maintain an appropriate balance of neurotransmitters.  As the brain adjusts, more alcohol will be needed to achieve the previous impact on the brain.  In other words, excessive use of alcohol can lead to increased cravings for alcohol.

Other environmental factors also play a role.  Earlier use of alcohol, by teenagers for example, increases the risk of developing Alcohol Use Disorder.  Children from homes where alcohol abuse is present are also at a higher risk for abusing alcohol.

Further, parents who abuse alcohol are more likely to:

  • neglect or abuse their children
  • behave with aggression and dishonesty
  • spend more time and money on alcohol rather than on the needs of their family

Unsurprisingly, mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and schizophrenia may lead a victim to self-medicate through the abuse of alcohol.  Overall, the alcoholic creates a home that is disruptive and in which the children do not feel safe.  In response, they may follow the example of their parents and turn to the abuse of alcohol.

Is Alcoholism Predetermined by Family?

There is no single gene which causes alcoholism or the abuse of alcohol.  Environmental factors — society, family and peer group — also play an important role.  Some genes produce predictable results.  For example, such things as eye color are determined by the expression of certain genes.  The genes which influence height, on the other hand, may also be impacted by such things as nutrition.  While there are genes which contribute to a predisposition for alcoholism, they should not be understood as forcing the person to abuse alcohol.  The same is true of environmental factors.  Do many children who grow up in alcohol homes end up abusing alcohol themselves?  Yes, but many end up firmly avoiding the use of alcohol.

The Special Case of Native Americans

Native Americans are known to suffer from one of the highest rates of alcohol abuse among all minorities in the United States.  This has led some to suggest that there is a genetic predisposition to the abuse of alcohol among Native Americans.  This is not necessarily the case, as other factors likely play a more important role.  Poor education, poverty, and limited resources may contribute to greater use of alcohol.  The history of Native Americans includes many painful realities such as the loss of culture and the forced removal of Native American children from their parents in order to force them to adopt the values of white culture.  Native Americans also suffer from higher rates of physical health problems and poverty.  The rate of mental illness, especially of depression, is also greater among Native Americans.  In the face of these problems and the resulting stress, many turn to alcohol to escape.

Alcoholism: Choice or Destiny?

Both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the abuse of alcohol.  Despite suggestions that Native Americans have a genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse, environment factors likely play a larger role.  Indeed, no person is doomed to become an alcoholic because of their genetic inheritance, because of environmental factors, or because of a combination of these two factors.  Each person is free to choose whether they will drink alcohol or not.  While it may offer an excuse for alcohol abuse among some people, neither genetics nor environment tell the whole story.  Each person must decide for themselves how they will use, not use, or stop drinking alcohol.

Additional Reference: NIAAA