Does Your Family History of Alcoholism Put You at Risk?

Alcoholism is a complex condition that can be caused (and exacerbated) by myriad internal and external factors – one of which is having a family history of the disorder. Considering that millions of Americans report having a close relative who exhibits signs of alcoholism, does this mean that all of these people are at risk for developing the disease themselves?

Addiction experts have yet to establish clear cause-effect relationships between risk factors and the onset of alcoholism, but there is evidence that a genetic component could be to blame for some cases. For individuals who have a history of alcoholism in their families, this by no means indicates that they are destined to develop the condition – but it should prompt them to be on the lookout for signs that they may have an addictive disorder.

About Alcoholism

Alcohol dependence, which is commonly referred to as alcoholism, is a progressive condition that is indicated by the existence of four primary symptoms:

  • Craving – The persistent, often overriding urge to consume alcohol.
  • Loss of Control – The inability to resist the urge to consume alcohol, or, once having started to drink, the inability to stop.
  • Physical Dependence – The onset of withdrawal symptoms – including tremors, nausea, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, and emotional volatility – in the absence of alcohol.
  • Tolerance – The need to consume increasingly larger amounts of alcohol in order to experience the effect that was previously reached with just a few drinks.

Increasing the Odds

Having a family history of alcohol can increase a person’s risk in two ways – by raising the likelihood that the person is genetically predisposed to the condition, and by exposing the person to an environment in which alcohol is a prevalent presence.

Studies have shown that children of alcoholic parents are as much as four times more likely than are members of the general population to develop alcoholism – and are also at higher risk for a range of additional emotional and behavioral disorders.

Children who are raised by alcoholic parents are believed to be considerably more prone to becoming alcoholics themselves if their experience includes the following:

  • Evidence of depression or other co-occurring emotional or psychological disorders by the alcohol-dependent parent.
  • Having two parents who regularly abuse alcohol or other drugs.
  • Having a parent with severe alcoholism whose aggressive behavior leads to conflict and violence within the family.

Reducing the Risk

The good news (and yes, there is good news) is that the majority of children who were raised by alcoholic parents do not develop drinking problems – though the risk is greater, most of these children will grow up to become adults who are capable of drinking in moderation.

Anyone whose family contains a history of alcoholism is right to be concerned about their risk, and would be wise to consider the following advice for reducing the likelihood that they will experience problems with alcohol use:

  • If you’re underage, don’t drink at all – In addition to being illegal in the United States, drinking alcohol at an early age also puts children, adolescents, and teens at a higher risk for developing alcoholism later in life, as well as for incurring some types of brain damage. Because young brains are still in the process of developing, exposure to alcohol can inflict lasting damage that can impair a person’s cognitive ability, memory, and academic/professional performance.
  • As an adult, drink only in moderation – The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises adults in general to limit themselves to no more than two drinks (for men) and one drink (for women). Among certain populations, of course – including alcohol-dependent individuals, women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, and individuals with certain medical conditions – no alcohol is advised.
  • Discuss any concerns with your health care provider – If you are at higher risk for alcoholism, if you have a family history of the disorder, or if you have any concerns about your relationship with alcohol, don’t hesitate to talk to a doctor, nurse, therapist, or other care provider. These experts can help put your mind at ease and give you the information you need to address any challenges you are experiencing.

Regardless of the risk factors, anyone can become dependent upon alcohol – and every individual is capable of living a substance-free life. If you or someone you care about is struggling to overcome a dependence upon alcohol, know that help is available – and with that help can come a healthier and brighter future.

Other Risk Factors

As with almost all medical conditions, alcoholism does not occur in a vacuum – that is, it is almost always accompanied by disorders and behaviors that may have led to (or been exacerbated by) alcohol abuse.

According to a document produced and distributed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), primary care physicians who are treating alcoholic patients should address the likelihood of additional risk factors. To accomplish this goal, Dr. Richard Saitz (writing in the Dec. 3, 2004 research summary) advised physicians to employ the following policies and practices

  • Brief behavioral counseling (including the “Five A’s – assess, advise, agree on goals, assist in developing a plan, and arrange a follow-up consultation)
  • System supports such as computer-guided decision making tools
  • Staff training on screening for and addressing multiple risk factors
  • Employment of multi-disciplinary teams led by nurses

The NIAAA article, which was entitled “Addressing Risky Alcohol Use with Other Behavioral Risk Factors,” declared that brief counseling was an effective means of addressing factors such as alcohol abuse and smoking, but its ability to identify multiple factors had yet to be established.
The factors that may increase the likelihood that a person will become an alcoholic can be grouped into the following five categories:

  • Genetic – The influence of genetics remains unclear, but researchers have noted that factors including a higher tolerance for alcohol, a craving for alcohol, and a predilection for becoming addicted to alcohol can be passed from parents to children via DNA.
  • Biological – Studies of the effects of alcohol on members of various ethnic groups have discovered that some may be biologically predisposed to drink less, while others are at increased risk for developing alcoholism. For example, according to an article on the website of the Mental Health Channel, many members of some Asian population lack a liver enzyme that breaks down alcohol, resulting in an unpleasant experience in those who drink (and thus a likelihood that these individuals will drink less).
  • Environmental – Children who are raised by parents who habitually drink alcohol may be more likely to engage in this behavior than were children who are raised in alcohol-free homes. Other environmental influences can include the behaviors of peers, siblings, and other family members.
  • Psychological – Individuals who received little parental support – or who were abused, neglected, or exposed to recurring incidents of domestic violence – may experience impaired psychological development or develop ineffective coping skills. These psychological and emotional setbacks may leave them vulnerable to alcohol abuse.
  • Socio-cultural – The degree to which the greater society accepts or rejects the use of alcohol may have a strong influence on the likelihood that an individual member of that society or cultural group will experiment with, misuse, or abuse alcohol.

No one factor guarantees that a person will develop alcoholism, but the presence of multiple risk factors is a matter that merits continued attention. By monitoring these influences and developing strategies to offset their impact, even individuals who are at the highest risk of succumbing to alcoholism can pursue lives that are free from the shackles of this debilitating disease.