Alcoholism is not caused by one specific thing. Genes, environment and social factors can all play key roles in the development of alcohol addiction.

There are many different things that can put a person at risk for alcohol addiction, such as genetics, social factors and environment. Alcoholism typically develops due to a mix of these elements, making it nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact cause of a person’s addiction. In particular, genes and heredity may play a key role in a person’s risk for alcohol addiction. Although experts are still learning more about these factors, there’s already evidence that they can contribute to the development of alcoholism.

What Causes Alcoholism? 

Studies1 show that genetics contributes substantially to alcohol addiction, and there are particular genes that may be responsible. These genes play a role in the way that alcohol is metabolized by the body, indicating that alcohol may be metabolized2 differently by people who develop alcoholism. Other studies3 have found that genetic factors account for about 50% of alcohol addictions, meaning that environmental and social factors also play a considerable role.

People who struggle with addiction may also have unique reactions in their brains when they consume alcohol. One study4 found that people with a family history of alcoholism release more dopamine in the brain when expecting to drink alcohol. People with addiction often continuously seek this dopamine release5, hoping to achieve more pleasure and higher dopamine levels. Eventually, they will end up needing more and more of the substance in order to get the same high that they are used to getting. 

Still, brain chemistry and genetics are just one piece of the puzzle. The likelihood of addiction is also linked to other risk factors, such as a history of trauma6 or mental health concerns7. Both of these factors can increase the risk of alcohol addiction because they may increase the desire for escape and relief. 

Symptoms of Alcoholism

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) can range from mild to severe, and it is diagnosed when an individual meets two or more diagnostic criteria. Being aware of the signs and symptoms of AUD can help you to spot a problem before it worsens. 

Some of the symptoms8 of AUD include: 

  • A desire to stop drinking but an inability to stop
  • Slurred speech and impaired motor skills
  • Impaired memory
  • Feeling low or depressed
  • Difficulty controlling drinking, frequently drinking more than intended 
  • Engaging in high-risk behaviors while drinking, such as driving under the influence 
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms during periods of reduced alcohol use

Genetic vs. Hereditary: What’s the Difference? 

When something is genetic9, it is caused by changes or mutations in a person’s genes. When these genetic mutations can be passed down to future generations, they are hereditary. 

There is evidence that genes affect the likelihood of addictive behaviors, but these genes aren’t always passed down. This means that alcoholism in families can have genetic components, but it is not always hereditary. 

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Research9 shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for AUD. This means that the other half might be environmental or caused by a mixture of genes and environment. In other words, alcoholism can be genetic or caused by a variety of different factors, including genes. 

See Related: Gender Differences In Substance Use Disorders

Is Alcoholism Hereditary? 

Alcoholism can be hereditary, meaning that the genes that influence alcoholism in a parent can be passed on to their children. However, even if a parent struggles with alcohol or is genetically predisposed to alcoholism, it does not guarantee that these risks will be inherited by their children. Still, someone can struggle with alcohol addiction even if they have no family history of alcoholism. 

Environmental Factors of Alcoholism

While genetics can play a significant role in the development of alcoholism, they only account for about half of what influences alcohol addiction. This indicates that environmental factors also make an important contribution. 

One study10 on female twins found that environment influences when drinking begins, but genes play a prominent role in the transition to alcohol addiction. It also showed that participants who had their first drink earlier were more likely to develop serious alcohol problems later on. In addition, researchers found that childhood exposure to conflict between parents was the largest contributing factor in beginning alcohol use. 

However, there are gaps in research11 involving diverse populations and environmental effects on alcohol use. This is important to note, as being part of a certain socioeconomic class or identifying with a particular racial group likely has profound effects on addiction risks due to trauma that may be experienced as a result of these social factors. 

Social Factors of Alcoholism

There are also social factors that increase the likelihood of alcohol use. A key risk factor is the social acceptance12 and encouragement of alcohol use, as well as alcohol’s availability13. Much of America’s social culture revolves around drinking, which can make it difficult to practice moderation or abstinence. Media, films and advertising campaigns frequently promote14 alcohol use, sending a message that frequent alcohol consumption is normal and acceptable. 

One study12 classified social factors into four different categories: 

  • Macro/policy level: Marketing, alcohol-related policies 
  • Community: Societal norms surrounding alcohol use, cultural and gender norms
  • Microsystem: Family and home environment, peer relationships, parental monitoring, parental substance use
  • Individual: Race/ethnicity, immigration status, socioeconomic status, experiences of trauma and loss 

Another study14 looked at social factors associated with binge drinking among Brazilian students in private high schools. It found that the biggest risk factor for binge drinking was going out frequently with friends at night. It was also associated with older age, male gender, not living with their mothers, rarely talking to parents and being non-religious. 

These studies help illustrate why it is impossible to identify a singular cause of substance abuse and addiction. It also shows why it is crucial to treat the whole person and address all of the various factors that lead to addiction. 

Alcoholism Treatment

Nearly 14.5 million Americans struggle19 with alcohol addiction. Fortunately, there are many effective options available for treatment15. Since quitting alcohol can lead to uncomfortable or even dangerous withdrawal symptoms, the first step may involve medical detox. These programs provide 24/7 monitoring and help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms that may occur. Medication16 may also be prescribed to assist with any long-term withdrawal symptoms that occur.

Following detox, treatment can begin in either an inpatient or an outpatient setting. In these programs, clients learn how to avoid future alcohol use and cope with difficult situations that used to lead to drinking. Alcoholism often co-occurs17 with other mental health disorders, and it is important for these conditions to be treated alongside the addiction.

The recovery process doesn’t end with inpatient or outpatient rehab. The best rehab facilities provide long-term support services, which may include relapse prevention plans, peer support meetings, follow-up appointments, alumni events and more.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution or alcohol addiction treatment, as each person has unique needs that must be met in recovery. The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper understands the importance of individualized care, so we work with each client to create a customized treatment plan that addresses addiction as well as its many underlying causes. 

Our experts are here to help you begin the path to a healthier, alcohol-free life in recovery. Contact us today to learn more about treatment programs that can work well for your situation.

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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.