It’s long been recognized alcoholism runs in families. Initially, environmental factors were thought to be the cause: living with an alcoholic parent “taught” children to deal with problems by abusing alcohol. Over the last few decades, however, research has suggested genetics influence the probability of alcohol abuse more than environment. Some suggest genetic factors increase the risk of alcohol dependency by 40 to 60 percent.
If you have a parent or sibling struggling with alcoholism, you may worry the disease will also affect you at some point. It’s important to remember that while genetic factors may increase your risk, you are not destined to suffer from alcoholism.
Genetic Studies and Alcoholism
The most compelling argument for hereditary alcoholism comes from studies of identical twins and adopted children. Identical twins share the same genetic makeup and, therefore, share the same risk of any hereditary condition. Twin studies show if one identical twin develops alcohol dependency, the other has high risk of sharing the disorder.
Studies of adopted children also suggest genetics affect alcoholism risk more than environmental factors. Children who are adopted by parents who suffer from alcoholism have four times the typical risk for alcohol abuse, exactly the same risk seen in children who live with alcoholic parents.
Researchers link a number of genetic markers to alcoholism risk, but no single “smoking gun” has yet been found. Most believe a combination of genetic factors influence the risk of alcohol dependency, rather than one specific gene.
Hereditary is Not Destiny
Genetics and hereditary determine risk, not destiny. You might inherit an increased risk of colon cancer from your parents, but this does not mean you’ll inevitably develop cancer. Knowing you have the risk, however, allows you to make healthy lifestyle decisions to reduce your chance of the disease.
Genetics and alcoholism work in much the same way. If your parent or sibling suffers from alcoholism, it’s realistic to assume you share a genetic predisposition for the disease. This does not, however, automatically mean you’ll need alcohol counseling.
Understanding you have a heightened risk of alcohol dependency is actually helpful as you can knowingly take steps to reduce your risk. You may choose to abstain from alcohol entirely, or you may track and limit your drinking habits. You can also monitor yourself for signs of alcohol abuse, such as binge drinking, and seek drug and alcohol counseling before the problem worsens.