The Role of Genetics in Alcohol Dependence

Troubled young girl comforted by her friendAlcohol abuse harms a loved one's health in unexpected ways. According to Web MD (1), chronic heavy drinking contributes to several health concerns like cancer, anemia and liver disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2) report that women absorb more alcohol when compared to men and it takes longer to break down, which makes women more likely to develop the negative effects of the substance. When a loved one's alcohol abuse gets out of control, family members must consider the possibility of a genetic link when evaluating the potential causes and seeking appropriate treatment.

Genes and Alcohol Abuse

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (3) says that alcohol addiction does run in families, and genetics play a role in the development of an addiction. When a family shows a history of alcohol abuse and dependence, it means that other close family members also have a risk of substance abuse. Although a genetic link plays a role in the way that a loved one's body breaks down and reacts to alcohol, it does not automatically mean that the genetic factors are the only cause of an addiction. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (3), genetic factors only account for about 1/2 of the risk, which means that other environmental factors play a role in the way that a loved one abuses the substance.

Increased Vulnerability

The University of Utah (4) reports that genetic factors focuses on the susceptibility or vulnerability of an individual when it relates to alcohol dependence. Vulnerabilities in an individual's genetics mean that the individual has a greater risk of alcohol dependence when compared to the general population, but it does not mean that a loved one will develop an addiction or that the genetic factors are the only cause of an addiction. According to the University of Utah (4), genetic factors usually mean that a loved one will face more difficulties discontinuing alcohol consumption or may face more severe withdrawal symptoms when compared to an individual without the genetic vulnerabilities; however, it does not mean that an addiction must continue. A loved one can still move forward and stop abusing alcohol with the help of experienced professionals and the right combination of treatments.

Other Factors Associated with Dependence

dna double helix blue backgroundSince genetics only contribute to roughly 50 percent of the dependence, other factors also impact a loved one's behavior and contribute to substance abuse. According to the Mayo Clinic (5), an individual's environment also plays a role in the development of an addiction. Factors that contribute to alcohol abuse and dependence include:
  • Social situations and factors
  • Overall environment at home, school or work
  • Psychological factors, like a mental health disorder or emotional trauma
When a loved one faces a complicated social environment or a stressful lifestyle, she faces more difficulties giving up alcohol and moving forward with a healthy lifestyle. By treating all of the underlying causes of an addiction and then developing a healthy support network, a loved one learns valuable tools that empower her abilities to avoid alcohol abuse after treatment. Abusing alcohol stems from multiple causes, not just the genetic factors. Although genetics play a role in the way a loved one reacts to the substance, it does not limit her ability to start making positive changes to her lifestyle. By working on positive changes and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, a loved one learns valuable tools to avoid alcohol in the future.
Sources:
  1. David Freeman, 12 Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking, Web MD, September 15, 2011, http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/features/12-health-risks-of-chronic-heavy-drinking
  2. Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women's Health, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 19, 2014, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/womens-health.htm
  3. Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder, The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2008, http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders/genetics-alcohol-use-disorders
  4. Genes and Addiction, The University of Utah, http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/addiction/genes/
  5. Alcoholism Causes, The Mayo Clinic, December 5, 2014, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcoholism/basics/causes/con-20020866
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