Is It True That You Can Inherit Alcoholism?

Introduction

Addiction refers to a compulsive need and/or use of a substance like alcohol. It is an immediate disease and directly impacts the brain — specifically the reward and motivation centers. There has been a continuous debate about whether addiction comprises genetic and hereditary components. 

Let’s take a look at a specific form of addiction, alcoholism, or in medical terms, Alcohol Use Disorder. This has been connected to particular genes, and implies that the chances of developing alcoholism are higher should you have a close relative or family member that has the same addiction. And if you know of someone who needs help, be sure to consider consulting a professional for substance abuse.

In this article, we dive into genetics and heredity. The difference between these two is simple: a genetic disease refers to an irregularity in one’s genome while a hereditary disease refers to one or more genetic mutations acquired from one’s parents’ DNA. There is still an ongoing debate on whether alcoholism is a hereditary or genetic disease — they have to identify if the condition is caused by a set of carried-over genes or if it originates from a form of gene mutation.

In the United States, about 18 million adults have alcoholism, which is a severe issue. This statistic implies that one out of 12 people has the disorder. Heavy and prolonged consumption of alcohol increases the chances of kidney disease, diabetes, and even cancer. Because of alcoholism, about 100,000 people in the United States die due to organ failure; namely concerning the liver. 

Genetic Disease

Scientists have found that genetics make up half the reason for alcoholism. It is theorized that if one already inclines to process alcohol to maximize its positive effects over its negative ones, they are likely to develop alcoholism.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) conducted a study in 2008 on alcohol use disorder that revealed that genetic factors are the cause of about 40 to 60 percent of people who have the disorder. This study has prompted further study and founding of more specific genes that play a part in alcoholism, which happens to have a relationship with the development of the brain’s reward centers. 

The observable expression of genes is quite complicated; as exemplified as a brown-eyed child having one parent with brown eyes and another parent with green eyes. Although the child only expresses one of the eye colors from his/her parents, he/she still carries the genes for both eye colors. When we take a closer look at alcohol use disorder, the presence of a dominant gene makes it exceptionable to the usual expression of genes as mentioned in the previous example. 

This strong gene is linked to a higher risk of alcohol abuse, despite it still being unknown how the genetic sequence specifically affects the outcome for a person. 

The findings on the genes that affect alcoholism show that people who come from a family with a history of alcoholism have a small amygdala. What is fascinating about this study is that this size is smaller than the average amygdala, which is the section of the brain that affects the emotions related to cravings. 

Studies have also shown that people with a genetic inclination to alcohol abuse may present lesser or different warning signals from their brain on when to stop drinking. To add, these people also were found to have atypical levels of serotonin — which is a mood-regulating neurotransmitter that is closely linked to depression. 

Hereditary Disease

Although it has been theorized that the offspring of alcoholics have almost about four times the chances of developing alcohol use disorder later in life, a 2011 survey results prove otherwise. Fewer than 50percent of those surveyed had developed alcoholism. This could be due to a straightforward answer: perhaps they did not inherit those genes. Another possibility is that perhaps they were nurtured by the environment they grew in, in this case, a household with alcoholic parents. 

Based on statistics, children who grow up in a household with at least one alcoholic parent are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder later in their lives. It is important to note that it does also depend on how close relatives are — for example, extended relatives like an uncle who struggles with the disorder, do not have the same power of influence on the child.  In another case, learned behavior from growing up in an alcoholic environment is another viable reason for how genes are expressed and how perceptions of alcohol are formed. 

Even in the absence of a genetic component, a person is still as vulnerable to developing an inclination to alcoholism due to their environment. Other contributing environmental factors include drinking at a young age, having a history of abuse, and struggling with mental health issues. People who drink while still at an adolescent age have a higher chance of abusing alcohol later in their life. Secondly, people who grew up in an abusive household — especially those who were exposed to verbal, physical, or sexual abuse — have a higher tendency to develop alcoholism as adults. Lastly, people with mental health problems like depression or anxiety tend to turn to alcohol to “feel better”, which could then cause an addiction due to forming a dependence on the substance.

Social drinking is a very prominent activity in the United States. It is known that many turn to alcohol to relieve stress. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), men are found to consume alcohol more than women do. The CDC states that between 1997 and 2015, men’s alcohol consumption was equivalent to a day in a month as compared to women. They also noted that despite this statistic, they started to notice an upward trend in women’s consumption of alcohol. 

How to Manage Alcoholism

To conclude, alcohol use disorder can be caused by either genetics, heredity, or environmental factors. However, with proper medical supervision and rehabilitation, those suffering from the disorder still have a chance to end their addiction. 

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