Alcoholism risk is a factor of both nature, nurture
A big question posed frequently is whether alcoholism is hereditary. Ample evidence shows that alcoholism is a complex genetic disease, with variations in a large number of genes affecting risk.
Among those abusing alcohol, people who are genetically predisposed to alcoholism have a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Although one can inherit alcoholic tendencies, the development of an alcohol use disorder is also dependent on social and environmental factors.
After decades of research, experts posit that alcoholism is caused by a blend of genetic and environmental factors. But the connection between risk of alcoholism, genetics, and environment is intricate.
Genes alone don’t necessarily cause alcoholism. Rather, genetic and environmental factors work together to affect a person’s risk. Epigenetics refers to how one’s environment and behaviour affect the way that genes function.
It is important to emphasise that while genetic differences affect risk, there is no “gene for alcoholism,” and both environmental and social factors weigh heavily on the outcome. Genetic factors affect the risk not only for alcohol dependence, but also the level of alcohol consumption and the risk for alcohol-associated diseases.
Environmental factors also help explain the risk of alcohol addiction. These include life experiences, like exposure to trauma. Genetics and environmental factors interact with one another. For instance, a person who has a genetic predisposition to alcoholism and experiences trauma may be more likely to turn to alcohol to cope, than a person who experiences trauma but does not have a genetic predisposition for alcoholism.
Just like a flower can have a genetic predisposition to be tall, a person can have a genetic predisposition to be an alcoholic. A genetic predisposition is an increased likelihood of developing a particular trait due to genetic makeup. Hence a person’s genetic makeup plays a significant role in determining their risk for addiction.
This is an active area for study and thus is critical to re-emphasise that there is not a particular gene exclusively liable for alcoholism. There are hundreds of genes in a person’s DNA that may increase the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Identifying them is problematic because each plays a small role in a much larger picture. However, studies have shown that certain combination of genes have a strong relationship to alcoholism.
There are also behavioural genes passed down that could affect a proclivity for alcohol use disorders. Mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, are more common in people with a family history of these disorders. Those suffering from mental illness stand a higher risk of turning to substance abuse as a coping mechanism. Mental disorders can be hereditary, and environmental, which somewhat highlights the multifaceted link between genetics and addiction.
Where children are concerned, those whose parents do not drink or expose them to alcohol are less likely to drink, and therefore less likely to develop an alcohol-related problem. On the other hand, children raised in a home where parents have alcoholic beverages around and drink frequently are at a greater risk for developing a drinking problem than children who are not exposed to alcohol. This risk declines when the child is educated about the use and risks of using alcohol.
Genetic makeup only accounts for half of the alcoholic equation. There are also countless environmental factors such as work, stress and relationships that may lead to alcoholism.
— The writer is the manager corporate Communications-NACADA —[email protected]