Is alcoholism inherited?
When it comes to questions of nature and nurture, the answer is seldom clear-cut. Alcohol addiction is no exception. Is alcoholism.
Research shows that a person's risk of alcoholism is about 4 times higher if he or she has a parent who was addicted to alcohol. However, some people develop alcoholism with no family history of the disease. And others never develop alcoholism despite a strong family history.
Based on research to date, experts believe that many different genes can contribute to a person's risk for alcohol problems. But genes alone won't cause a person to become addicted to alcohol. Environmental factors, such as a person's social circle, the amount of stress in his or her life, and how easy it is for the person to get alcohol, also play a role in the disease.
The good news is that alcoholism isn't inevitable for anyone, and research into how and why the disease develops may lead to improved prevention and treatment.
Identical twins (who have the same genes) are twice as likely to be either both addicted or both not addicted to alcohol compared to fraternal twins (who have about half of the same genes).
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At least five chromosomes (specific groups of genes) in humans are involved in increased risk for alcoholism. At least one chromosome is involved in protecting people from the disease.
Based on this and other research, it's believed that 50 to 60 percent of the risk for alcoholism comes from genetics.
Studies suggest several possible links between genes and alcoholism. For example, genes may influence the enzymes in the liver that help break down alcohol. In some people, the way these enzymes function may help prevent alcoholism by causing side effects from drinking such as flushing, nausea or rapid heartbeat.
Other research points to neurotransmitters, the chemicals in the brain that transmit signals and messages from one part of the brain to the other. Studies suggest that these chemicals can influence how likely a person is to develop a tolerance to alcohol or to have withdrawal symptoms after quitting drinking. They may also affect a person's emotional state. All of these factors may influence a person's drinking patterns.
Plenty of people who have a family history of alcoholism never develop problems with alcohol. If you have a family history of this disease, you can reduce your risk of alcoholism by:
Avoiding underage drinking. Research shows that people who start drinking at a young age are at higher risk for alcoholism.
Talking to a professional. Discuss your concerns with a doctor, nurse or other healthcare provider. He or she may refer you to a group or organization, or perform a medical assessment of your drinking habits and attitudes. You can also get individualized advice on your own decisions about alcohol.
Choosing not to drink. Drinking in any amount may be especially risky for you. Some people with a family history of alcoholism find it difficult to drink moderately and can slip easily into heavy drinking patterns.
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Health Library articles are intended for general health education and are written and provided by Coffey Communications. Health Library articles do not represent CMH or hospital policy. If you have a question concerning a specific policy, please contact CMH at 937.382.6611.