Does Alcohol Addiction Run in Families?

By Laura Smart - Last Updated: September 11, 2023

Clinically Reviewed on March 9, 2023 by Dr Alexander Lapa.

Does Alcohol Addiction Run in Families?

Alcohol addiction is a problem that can affect anyone of any age, race, sex, or socioeconomic background but one of the biggest questions out there is does alcohol addiction run in families?

Here, find out the biggest contributors to development of alcoholism and whether addiction runs in families.

What Contributes to Alcohol Addiction?

There are a huge range of factors that can contribute to alcohol addiction, and while a family history of addiction can be one, there are other social factors that add to the overall risk.

Certain demographics or parts of society may be more likely to develop alcohol problems, which might be what makes it seem as though alcoholism does indeed run in families. Nonetheless, it has been a long-observed conversation that alcohol addiction can commonly run in families and there is a genetic factor to the development of alcohol addiction.

It is certainly the case that a person raised in a household with parents who are problem drinkers can be more likely to develop problems with alcohol themselves, but is it actually genetic, or just an outcome of the social environment?

The reasons behind this can be quite complex, which is why it is an ongoing discussion and argument. Here, we will look into the link and find out does alcoholism run in families?

Can Alcoholism Be Passed Down Genetically?

This question is incredibly fickle. While alcoholism isn’t necessarily a genetic disease that is hereditary, genetics, which are passed down, can influence the susceptibility of somebody developing alcoholism.

Our understanding of addiction and alcohol genetics is growing all the time and numerous studies have looked at the role played by genetics and other factors such as upbringing and observed behaviour. Nature and nurture are both causes of alcoholism running in families.

A study on the relationship between genetics and alcoholism cited previous research that, when combined, showed “overwhelming evidence” that genetic variations contribute to the risk for alcohol dependence. Studies of people who had been adopted, for example, showed that a predisposition to alcoholism was more closely associated with the person’s biological parents than their adoptive ones.

Twins have also often been used in research looking into environmental and hereditary or genetic factors. Studies in the US and Europe suggest that between 45-65% of the risk of alcoholism is due to genetic factors.

Animal studies with rats and mice have also demonstrated genetic predispositions – with researchers having selectively bred individual animals for a range of traits related to alcohol dependency, including alcohol preference, alcohol sensitivity, and withdrawal sensitivity.
While there is undoubtedly a genetic aspect to alcohol and risk, it’s important to release that there is no single ‘alcoholism gene’. As the study authors note, it is likely that – as with most complex diseases – any risk is due to variations in hundreds of genes, as well as their different social environments.

The US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) also notes that some genes can also reduce the risk of developing alcohol addiction. Some people of Asian descent, for example, carry a gene variant that affects their alcohol metabolism, causing symptoms such as nausea and flushing. This can lead to people avoiding alcohol which can indirectly reduce their risk factor of genetic alcoholism. The NIAAA notes that studies suggest that genes are responsible for around half the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD).


How Does Alcoholism Run in Families?

As we mentioned, seeing the ways in which alcoholism can be influenced upon people through genetics, these are in terms of developmental risk, not necessarily alcoholism as an isolated ‘disease’ or ‘illness’.

That being said, these are some of the ways alcoholism can run in the family.

  • Genetic Predisposition: Some studies have found that individuals with a family history of alcoholism have a higher risk of becoming alcoholics themselves, this is due to specific genes having been associated with an increased risk of developing alcoholism.
    However, do remember that having these genes doesn’t guarantee that someone will develop an alcohol problem.
  • Polygenic Traits: Unlike single-gene disorders (like cystic fibrosis), alcoholism is believed to be influenced by multiple genes (polygenic). This means that there isn’t a single alcoholism gene as we mentioned, but rather a combination of genetic factors that can increase vulnerability.
  • Gene-Environment Interaction: The interplay between genetics and environment is crucial. Some people might have genes that make them more susceptible to alcoholism, but if they never take a drink or if they grow up in an environment that doesn’t encourage excessive drinking, they might never develop an addiction.
  • Epigenetics: Some research has explored how the environment can change the way genes are expressed, without altering the DNA sequence itself. These epigenetic changes can potentially influence an individual’s risk of developing various conditions, including alcoholism

Psychological factors, social environment, early exposure to alcohol, mental health conditions, and other variables can all influence an individual’s risk of developing alcoholism. Even among those with a strong genetic predisposition, these factors can play a decisive role.


Can Families Recover from Alcohol Addiction Together?

Alcohol abuse and family functioning are very much intertwined. One review of previous research into this area concluded that alcohol use disorder (AUD) harms both individuals within the family and the functioning of the family as a whole. The behaviour of family members can exacerbate problematic drinking but, at the same time, families can play a key role in recovery.

Families can play a key part in getting an individual to face up to their problems and seek help in the first place, sometimes via a guided family intervention. They can also play an important part in recovery through techniques such as family therapy. One member going through successful recovery can also have a beneficial effect on the family as a whole, potentially encouraging other family members to address their own problematic relationships with alcohol.


    Getting Help for Alcohol Addiction

    Does alcoholism run in your family? If you or a family member are struggling with alcohol problems, evidence-based treatment delivered in alcohol rehab is the single most effective way to deal with them. Get in touch today for confidential advice and to find out how we can help.