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Is alcoholism hereditary?


Scientific research has suggested that alcoholism may have a hereditary element, but there is not yet an absolute answer on this.

Whilst there are indications of possible genetic predisposition to alcoholism there is not only one ‘alcoholic’ gene, rather it’s possible there are several variances across a number of genes that can make it more likely someone will become alcohol dependent.

In reality, the development of alcoholism is more likely influenced by a complicated mixture of environmental, social and genetic factors.

Whilst alcoholism is not necessarily due to genetics, the risk of a child of an alcoholic becoming alcohol dependent themselves does seem to increase.

Research into genetic alcoholism

Periodically headlines will appear that seem to demonstrate that alcoholism or other types of addiction are hereditary but the reality is not as simple as they might make it seem.  

In 2010, there were headlines across many British news outlets, including the BBC, regarding a gene that could ‘curb’ alcoholism.

The NHS analysed these reports and the original research they were based upon and concluded that without further research, the current findings do not provide ways to predict or treat alcoholism. The NHS analysis said the American research the headlines were based upon had shown an association between the region containing a certain gene and alcohol tolerance, but even those findings needed to be confirmed in other samples before any firm conclusions could be drawn.

woman with alcohol bottle man

Research published by the American National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has also indicated further research is required to clarify any genetic or hereditary links.

One study it published, by Carol A Prescott Phd, said: “Twin studies have consistently supported the role of genetic risk factors in the heritability of alcoholism in men, and shared environmental factors also play a role in the familiality of alcoholism among women. In addition, sex differences exist in the patterns of transmission of alcoholism between family members. However, the genetic epidemiology research conducted to date on this issue has several limitations, some of which may be resolved by future molecular genetic studies.”

A 2016 report by the Medical Council on Alcohol and Oxford University Press gave a similar analysis.

It said: “Although studies spanning multiple approaches have suggested a genetic basis for Alcohol Use Disorder, identification of the genetic risk variants has been challenging.”

Research has indicated that alcohol dependence is usually present alongside mental health issues such as anxiety and depression and is even more prevalent in those suffering major depressive disorders, personality disorders and schizophrenia. Whether that link is genetic is not clear.

Children of alcoholics at increased risk of becoming alcoholic 

Whilst more work is needed to confirm if genetics predispose some people to alcoholism, there does appear to be strong evidence that children of alcoholics are at increased risk of having alcohol problems themselves. This is due to a number of factors.

Alcoholism places extreme strain on the entire family and children can be affected for life by this. Children with an alcoholic parent are more likely to experience mental health issues, financial problems and family conflict.

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics said a study it carried out, with 23,000 respondents, showed children of alcoholics had increased risks during childhood and into adulthood. It said they were at increased risk of considering suicide, getting in trouble with the police, eating disorders and alcoholism. It said children who grew up with alcoholic parents were more than three times as likely to develop alcoholism.

Living in a home where alcoholism is present often leads to secrecy and shame throughout the family and children take on that burden too. It may also mean more family conflict, financial difficulties, caring responsibilities falling to a child or even abuse.

Children will react in various ways to these strains but the hurt and fear can lead to low self-esteem, isolation and self-destruction which may manifest as an addiction later on.

Research shows incidences of depression are four times more frequent in a family affected by alcohol. When children of alcoholic parents grow up they’re twice as likely to suffer from depression than those of non-alcohol-dependent parents.

Does it matter if alcoholism is hereditary?

It may be frightening to imagine alcoholism is hereditary if you’re concerned that could mean you or your children are more exposed to the risk of developing a drink dependence. However, it is certainly not the case that all children of alcoholics will abuse alcohol themselves. Even if there is some inherited factor that exposes some people more to the risk of becoming alcohol dependent, it’s not the case that anyone is immune to recovery or even avoidance of developing an issue.

Developing effective and robust self-care techniques and coping mechanisms that avoid alcohol being used as a form of self-medication or escape will help.

For those who are drinking dependently or harmfully – it may well be the case that the alcoholism of a parent increased their risk of becoming alcoholic. What is vital is to know is that they are not predisposed to never being able to get well regardless of how things developed for their parent. 

With effective support, anyone with alcohol dependence issues can find ways to get and stay sober. It is not usually easy, but it is possible and even if you’ve had unsuccessful attempts in the past, it can be done. You can recover yourself and help to protect the children you may already have or those you may have in the future from following the same destructive path.

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