Addiction to Alcohol: Its in your genes?

The Genetics of Alcohol AddictionAlcoholism runs in families. That’s been common knowledge for millennia, probably since the first brewery was built. The reason it seems hereditary has always been a question, though. Is it nature, or nurture? Is alcohol addiction physically inherited, learned, or both?

Alcoholism runs in families. That’s been common knowledge for millennia, probably since the first brewery was built.  The reason it seems hereditary has always been a question, though. Is it nature, or nurture? Is alcohol addiction physically inherited, learned, or both?
In the 20th century, science was finally able to start finding answers. After a lot of research, those answers are getting clearer, although we’re a long way from a complete understanding.  At this point, there doesn’t seem to be a single gene that causes people to become alcoholics, but doctors have confirmed that it’s physically hereditary.

In the research that did the most to confirm the link between alcoholism and heredity, researchers studied sets of identical twins who were born to alcoholic parents but given up at birth for adoption. They looked for situations where one twin was adopted by parents with no alcohol problems, and the other was taken in by a family where alcoholism was present.  Then they studied other sets of twins, also adopted at birth, whose parents had no drinking problems and who were divided between alcoholic and non-alcoholic families.

If alcoholism was mainly learned, we’d expect the children raised in alcoholic families to become problem drinkers themselves, and those raised by parents without alcohol problems to reflect that pattern in their own adult lives.  What actually happened, though, was that the presence or absence of alcoholism in the children’s birth parents played the strongest role, even though those children never even knew their biological parents.

Why does this matter?  For three reasons: first, it helps to know alcoholism is not a matter of character or willpower – it seems that some people are born “hard-wired” to become alcoholics if we drink, and some aren’t. That can help families focus on problem-solving rather than blaming and shaming. Second, if we’ve struggled with alcohol, it can help us see that we’re best off if we forget finding a way to drink “normally.”  Finally, if we’ve had problems with drinking and we have children, we must share this knowledge with them – it may save their lives.

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