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Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

Teen boy with a serious look on his face talking to his drunk father  

Alcohol use disorder occurs when drinking alcohol becomes disruptive to other activities of normal living, such as working, carrying on normal relationships or managing time or finances. Alcohol use disorder can be genetic and is often present in the children of people who had an alcohol use disorder themselves. This trend can lead people to wonder if there is some genetic or hereditary trait that causes alcoholism. The issue of how family influences alcohol use is very complex. Ultimately, it is a combination of multiple genes, family behaviors, and the environment to which someone is exposed that will affect the likelihood that they will develop an alcohol use disorder.

Heredity vs. Genetics

The difference between genetic and hereditary influences is small. Technically, genetic inheritance is a trait that is biological and is passed on from a parent to their child. Hereditary inheritance is a trait that is passed on from a parent or grandparent to a child, and may be related to genetics or may be a behavior that the child inherits from a parent. The term hereditary may also be used to contrast with genetics and refer to traits that are inherited but are not genetic.

Alcoholism and Genetics

Evidence has shown that there is definitely a genetic predisposition to alcoholism for people who have certain genes. While there is no single gene that causes or creates alcoholism or the tendency to misuse alcohol, there are combinations of genes that influence, in some way, the likelihood that an alcohol use disorder will occur. The genetic factors influencing alcohol dependence may directly cause increased cravings for alcohol and a risk of becoming dependent upon alcohol use, or may be more indirect, causing symptoms that either discourage or encourage alcohol use.

Alcoholism and Heredity

The development of alcoholism can be influenced by a child’s upbringing. Children who are more inquisitive of their environment and who are less cautious are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. Children are also more likely to replicate behaviors that they see in their parents. Children who have parents that drink excessive amounts of alcohol may be more likely to misuse alcohol than children who do not, due to seeing this behavior in their parents or by learning their parents’ values and views.

The Role of the Environment

One of the most important debates in psychology about behavior is the nature vs. nurture debate. Research shows that behavior is definitely influenced by genetics and the biology of someone’s parents, but also shows that it is highly influenced by the environment that someone grows up in. With any behavior, psychologists debate whether it was caused more by someone’s biology and genetics or by the environment they were raised in. In reality, both play an important role, but it is often unclear which has more influence.

Environmental Risk Factors of Alcoholism

In addition to the genetic and hereditary factors, the environment that someone is in will influence if they develop an alcohol use disorder. Some environmental factors that will influence the development of an alcohol use disorder include:

  • Early Drinking Age – One of the disadvantages of drinking alcohol at a young age is that it substantially increases the risk of alcoholism later in life. Teenage alcoholism is much harder to treat than it is for adults and leads to a higher risk that alcoholism will be present throughout that person’s life.
  • High Levels of Stress – People will often use alcohol for stress relief. This is the cause of the relationship between stress and alcohol consumption. The relationship means that those who have prolonged stress are at a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, especially if they have a history of using alcohol to help with stress relief.
  • Peer Pressure – Peer pressure and alcohol abuse are often related, especially in teenagers. Peer pressure can influence people to use alcohol at a young age or to drink in excess when they would not normally consider doing so or know that it is not a good decision.
  • Mental Illness – Those who have a mental illness are more likely to misuse alcohol. There is a well-known and well-studied link between alcohol use and mental illness and those who have a mental illness will be more likely to use alcohol to treat the symptoms of their illness, especially if their mental illness has been untreated.

Combination of Genetic, Hereditary and Environmental Influences

Ultimately, it is a combination of genetic, hereditary and environmental influences that can lead to someone developing an alcohol use disorder. While someone may have a genetic predisposition to addiction or other influences that make them more at risk for having an alcohol use disorder, it does not guarantee that they will become an alcoholic. Someone who is genetically very likely to become addicted to alcohol but never takes that first drink will avoid the potential consequences of alcohol addiction and the negative effects that it can cause. While external influences may create an increased risk of addiction, it is also choices by the individual that will affect whether an alcohol addiction develops.

Recognizing Alcohol Abuse and Getting Help

Those who have an alcohol use disorder may find that using alcohol interferes with their normal activities of life, has become a part of their normal life to such an extent that removing it would be very difficult or that they are unable to stop using alcohol even though they would like to. Someone who has developed an alcohol addiction is not doomed to a lifetime of addiction, even if they have genetic and other factors that influenced their initial alcohol use disorder. Behaviors like excessive alcohol use can be changed, just as they were initially developed.

Contact Next Generation Village to speak with a representative about how professional addiction treatment can address an alcohol addiction. You deserve a healthier future, call today.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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