“Just because you are prone to addiction doesn’t mean you’re going to become addicted. It just means you’ve got to be careful.” Dr. Glenn Hanson
At various times in history alcoholism and drug addiction were believed to be caused by a lack of willpower, a moral weakness, or some type of personality defect. There was a time when alcoholics and other addicts were locked away in jails or placed in mental institutions.
In the United States, alcohol was illegal for a period or fourteen years, from 1919 to 1933 (Prohibition).
When it comes to alcohol and drug use what makes some people able to stop while others become addicted? We now know that there are multiple factors involved. Some people’s genetics make them more susceptible to addiction. For some people their genetic makeup makes it much easier for them to succumb to the addictive power of certain drugs, for others it is not so easy to become addicted.
Genetic predisposition has been studied in alcoholics and in children of alcoholics. Children of alcoholics, who have never taken a drink in their lives, have distinct brain patterns that are found in alcoholics including their alcoholic parents. Therefore, there is a definite genetic component for alcoholism that is passed down in families through the generations.
A person’s biochemistry can also make them more or less likely to become an alcoholic or an addict. Some people are just able to “hold their liquor” and as a result they tend to drink more. Others will become aggressive, euphoric, nauseated, or tired when drinking. An individual’s reaction will make a person more or less likely to continue to drink.
“Roughly 10% or 1 in 10 people who use drugs or alcohol become addicted. It is a combination of environmental and genetic factors that come together to determine addiction.” Univ. of Utah
However, addiction is not all about genetics environment plays a role also. There are several environmental factors that can increase the likelihood of a child later becoming an alcoholic or an addict. Some of the leading social or environmental factors are:
- One’s peers. Friends have the greatest influence during adolescence. Drug-abusing peers can sway even those without risk factors to try drugs for the first time and increase the risk of addiction.
- Parental behavior regarding alcohol and drugs. If one’s parents abuse alcohol or drugs, the risk of addiction is greater for those children.
- Home environment. Growing up in a family where there is discord and conflict increases a child’s risk for addiction. In addition, under certain circumstances children of divorce are at a greater risk for addiction.
- Performing poorly in school. Academic failure, particularly in elementary school, or poor social skills can put a child further at risk for addiction.
Therefore, like all diseases of behavior, environment and genetics are both at play in shaping addiction. Just because someone inherits the genetic predisposition for drug or alcohol addiction does not mean they will become an addict. In the right environment where drug and alcohol use is discouraged or unavailable, a person will escape their genetic predisposition for addiction.
Likewise, if an individual does not have a genetic predisposition for addiction but grows up in an environment that includes family conflict, where alcohol or drug abuse is pervasive, and one’s peers are using drugs and alcohol then that child may in fact go on to become an addict regardless of his “non-addict” genes.
For further reading please refer to the articles suggested by author below.
For more information on addiction visit, Partnership for a Drug Free America.
Source material: Leonard & Blane, 1999; McGue, 1995; NIDA, University of Utah.