Is Alcoholism Genetic

Is Alcoholism Genetic

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

Is Alcoholism Genetic?


Alcoholism is one of the illnesses of extremes that humanity has been dealing with ever since we discovered how to make alcohol. While the reasons why an individual has turned to drink to solve their problems repeatedly is an issue on a personal level, are some people more likely than others to develop the addiction? Are our circumstances and environment to blame, or more crucially, is there a genetic link that makes the child of alcoholics more likely to become one themselves?


The idea of hereditary alcoholism is something that has been discussed colloquially for years, and scientific studies have also been conducted to verify if the statement is true or not, since the theory was put forward in 1990. For many ordinary people, the question of whether alcoholism is genetic is a common one, especially as we look at the family members around us who are alcoholics or heavily alcohol dependent, and wonder if that means that they will also become alcoholics as a result. Are there DNA tests for addiction?


It is such a common question for many that it has almost become mythologized into fact, or maybe proven into mythology. Scientists have proven that one singular gene does not determine whether someone will become an alcoholic or not, having done multiple studies following families, including the propensity for twins who were adopted and raised separately to become alcoholics. A combination of 100 or so genes could increase the likelihood of becoming alcohol dependent.


Some combinations of these genes are more likely to cause alcoholism than others, although it is noteworthy that a baby cannot be born with alcohol addiction, unlike with some other substances. Other genes, while not always able to impact addiction like alcoholism directly, can cause behavioral issues, which may in turn influence someone’s propensity to drink in excess. These issues include mental illnesses such as depression or schizophrenia, which are far more common in people who have a family history of these conditions.

Are Genes Entirely to Blame?


So, genes play a part in whether or not someone could become an alcoholic, but genes are not entirely to blame. Another important cause to consider is the role of the environment in leading to alcoholism. Environmental factors are often considered equally as important as genetic factors when it comes to developing alcohol dependency. Factors that can increase risk include lack of parental supervision, aggressive childhood behavior, poor social skills, availability of alcohol, and beginning experimentation with alcohol or drugs at an early age.


Children who see their parents drinking lots are also more likely to see heavy drinking as normal, acceptable behavior. If the community we know and see around us growing up places value and acceptance on heavy drinking, or in some cases even glamorizes it, then we are too as impressionable young people.  Parents becoming violent or aggressive as a reaction to conflict can also be an influence. Anyone who is exposed to environmental factors like these can become addicted to alcohol, but people with the right combination of genes are at an even higher risk of becoming addicted from both sets of factors.

Personal Element to Genetic Alcoholism


The final type of factor that we must consider as playing a massive part in whether or not an individual becomes an alcoholic or not is the aspect of choice. Individual choice is also the most unpredictable factor, someone can have all the genetic and environmental risks of becoming an alcoholic but those who do not want to become one will not. It is up to each person to decide whether they are going to follow such patterns that they see around them or whether seeing those around them fall victim to such vices will drive them in the opposite direction, maybe into teetotalism completely as an attempt to try and break with history and stop the same situations repeating in their lives as with their parents.


This is the personal element and the one that while most unpredictable is also the one that people have the most control over. Even in moments of doubt, they can reach out to anyone at any time and get the help, support, and treatment that they need. Community is massively important, and by changing their environments as well as their minds to reflect who they want to be in their lives regardless of where they’ve come from, anyone predisposed towards alcohol or other substance abuse can rely on those around them and the various types of support offered to avoid repeating patterns of previous familial generations.

Overall, we can see that although there is evidence to support genetics having a role to play in whether someone could become an alcoholic, it is not a cause on its own, as there are other factors such as environmental and individual choice that must be taken into account when considering the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic.


Just because a parent or family member was an alcoholic, it does not mean that therefore you certainly will be too. There are several other factors at work, and even if someone has a higher risk because of their genes, it does not mean that this is certain. Our environment and who we grow up around also has a massive impact on who we turn out to be as adults, and someone with no hereditary alcoholism can be influenced by their environment and choose to start drinking to dependence.


Greater than the impact of our genes or the impact of our environment, however, is the impact of our decisions. Once addicted, it is very difficult to just choose to stop, but choosing to start drinking in the first place is up to the individual, though not necessarily without pressure to do so, or personal circumstances that make it seem as if drinking is the only option. Even then, the most important thing to remember is that help is always available. Alcoholism, or an increased likelihood of alcoholism, does not make anyone less worthy of treatment or help.

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