Updated January 31, 2021
The term ‘addiction’ is often referred to as ‘a family disease,’ but what does that actually mean? Is that a generalization or are some people more genetically predisposed to becoming addicted? The reality is, there are many factors that can cause someone to be vulnerable to addiction. No one is certain to develop an addiction to alcohol or drugs and no one is immune from all risk either. One of the factors that may predispose someone to addiction is heredity, and people whose family members have experienced addiction should familiarize themselves with the risks.
It’s an Important Question: Is There an Addiction Gene(s)?
Each year, addiction takes a financial toll on people in the U.S. to the tune of billions of dollars, but that isn’t the only fallout. Addiction to drugs and alcohol can impact all aspects of an individual’s life, such as their job, schooling, community standing, and family relationships. Because drug and alcohol addiction often plague more than one family member—and more than one generation—addiction is often referred to as a hereditary disease.
But is there an addiction gene? Yes, insofar as there’s a strong genetic link— but no also. The full answer is much more interesting and a bit complicated….
Is Addiction to Drugs or Alcohol Hereditary? The Biological Factors
According to the American Psychological Association, genetic factors can make up “at least half of a person’s susceptibility to drug addiction.” Researchers are also beginning to better understand the biological factors that can make addiction inheritable from one generation to another. For instance, evidence suggests that individuals who have fewer D2 dopamine receptors are more likely to become addicted than people with many of these receptors; and there is hope within the scientific community that one day a certain dopamine receptor might be used to identify whether someone is susceptible to drug or alcohol addiction.
Such breakthroughs are promising. They mean that brain imaging may one day be used as a preventative tool, helping people understand their genetic risk factors to things like alcoholism and opioid addiction.
However, while genetic factors can render a person more susceptible to the disorder than someone else may be, they do not categorically determine whether a person will become addicted or not. Often, other factors—namely, environmental factors—play a substantial role in the development of addictions.
Why Genes and Biology Are Only Half of It
The fact remains, even the most genetically susceptible person won’t develop an addiction if they refrain from using alcohol or drugs altogether. It’s clear that a variety of factors are at play when it comes to the development of addiction. That’s why addiction is often referred to as a “multi-type” disease, because it involves physical, psychological, and behavioral factors.
In recent years, the medical community has dubbed the term “addiction” a disease. It can be governed by genes in the same way that other diseases can be. For instance, heart disease can be hereditary.
However, even people without a genetic susceptibility can develop either addiction or heart disease as a result of their behaviors. A person who abuses alcohol routinely can easily become addicted to it. A person who eats a high-cholesterol diet can develop heart disease. So, addiction, in a very real sense, is a complex condition that must be unraveled and evaluated during the treatment process.
It’s also worth noting that addiction is different from many diseases like heart disease because it involves both physical and mental components. Yes, a person can become physically addicted to a drug or alcohol to a point where they become violently ill without it.
On the other hand, drugs and alcohol do change the chemistry of the brain. These changes result in the powerful psychological compulsions that individuals experience once they become addicted to drugs or alcohol. It’s why people seem unable to stop using in spite of the negative effects they suffer.
What Environmental Factors Make Someone Susceptible to Addiction?
For researchers, it’s often a combination of factors they identify in people suffering from addiction. For instance, a person born to a parent who has an alcohol addiction may be genetically predisposed to the condition as well.
However, simply being present in a home where a parent or guardian abuses alcohol or drugs is also a risk factor for addiction development. Why? Because children often mimic their elders. If a person drinks to quell their anger or stress, kids see and learn that behavior.
Family members’ habits aren’t the only environmental factors associated with addiction development. A person’s peer group and socio-economic status are also strong factors. Although addiction affects people in all socio-economic groups, those individuals living in poverty are at the greatest risk for developing an addiction.
A person’s social or peer group can also have a strong impact. Being in close proximity to others abusing alcohol or drugs increases the likelihood of use and, ultimately, abuse.
The Link Between Addictions
Studies have shown that addiction is 50 percent due to genetic predisposition and 50 percent due to poor coping skills. This statistic might be alarming, but it’s important to remember that everyone can become addicted from a genetic standpoint; it’s just that some might be a bit more susceptible, genetically speaking, than others.
To be specific, there is no one “addiction gene,” but rather a genetic makeup that makes us more or less likely to suffer addiction given our actions (i.e drinking at a young age, drinking to drown negative emotions, trying powerful drugs like heroin). Genetics only account for half the susceptibility to drug or alcohol addiction. The other half is often related to environmental factors and poor coping skills that leave a person more vulnerable.
Are Children of Addicts at Heightened Risk?
One study revealed that children of addicts are eight times more likely to develop an addiction than others. The study observed 231 individuals who had an addiction and compared them to 61 people who did not have an addiction. Following that, it looked at first-degree relatives of the individuals and determined that people addicted to a substance are eight times as likely to produce children who will become addicted.
But how can this generational transmission happen? Is it a gene in the brain? Does it predispose children to be more likely, genetically? Not exclusively, but it is worth examining.
Researchers have not identified the quantifiable characteristic that is being passed on to the next generation; they just know that people who suffer from addiction tend to be related to other people who suffer from the same disease. The answer may lie in the other 50 percent: those poor coping skills.
Children with addicted parents are statistically more likely to lead unhealthy lifestyles and have trouble coping with things like negative emotions or stress. These coping skills affect their future and their prospects of become addicted. Additionally, if a mother is using while pregnant, there is an even greater chance that the child will become addicted to drugs or alcohol.
What To Do?
Anyone concerned about developing an addiction or concerned about their children should take time to learn their family history. If relatives suffer from addiction, there’s some likelihood that a genetic predisposition could run in the family.
A robust defense against this predisposition is to avoid alcohol and drug use or be mindful about one’s drinking habits. Developing healthy ways to cope with stress or negative feelings can prevent someone from using alcohol or drugs to cope.
If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction, you owe it to yourself and those around you to seek treatment. FHE Health can provide a detailed evaluation and recommend next steps. Our counselors are available 24/7 to answer questions at 1-844-675-6413.
Nobody is purely the sum of their genes. Take your life back today.