Alcoholism: Genetic & Environmental Influences

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  • 0:01 Influences
  • 0:58 Genetics
  • 2:32 Environment
  • 3:46 Working Together
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Alcoholism can be influenced by genetic predisposition and a person's environment. These factors work together to determine each individual's risk and their effects are difficult to separate.

Influences

There are two flowers growing in front of Max's house. Both flowers are the same type, but the flower on the right side of the house has grown much taller than the flower on the left side of the house. Why is this?

One answer could be that the genetic makeup of the plant on the right side of the house is programmed so that it will grow taller than the plant on the left side of the house. Another answer could be that the flower on the right side of the house is growing in better soil and receiving more nutrients. It could also be that a combination of factors is affecting the growth of the plants.

Answering questions like this are one of the central tasks of modern science. This lesson will address what modern science is able to tell us about why some people become addicted to alcohol while others do not. Is it genetics, environment, or a combination of the two?

Genetics

Like a flower can have a genetic predisposition to be tall, a person can have a genetic predisposition to be an alcoholic. A genetic predisposition is an increased likelihood of developing a particular trait due to genetic makeup.

A person's genetic makeup plays a significant role in determining their risk for addiction. According to studies, about half of a person's risk for becoming an alcoholic can be based on genetics. However, there is no one gene responsible for alcoholism. Instead, a variety of different genes are involved and different people can have different degrees of genetic risk for alcoholism.

For example, a variation in the genes involved in alcohol metabolism could put Sarah at risk for alcoholism. However, Josh has a genetic predisposition for alcoholism due to a variation in the genes that control nerve cell activity. Brenda has a combination of both of these genetic variations and has an even higher risk of developing alcoholism because of this.

While some genes are linked specifically to alcohol addiction, other genetic factors may be linked to addiction in general. Having a genetic predisposition to addiction in general can lead to cross-addiction.

Cross-addiction is being addicted to more than one substance at a time or swapping one addiction for another, such as an alcoholic who also becomes addicted to gambling, or replaces drinking with drug use.

Environment

Like a flower can grow taller in better soil, the environment also plays a significant role in a person's risk for alcohol abuse. The environment a person was exposed to growing up is one important factor. Consider the following examples.

Children whose parents do not drink or expose the child to alcohol are less likely to drink, and therefore less likely to develop an alcohol-related problem.

Children raised in a home where parents have alcoholic beverages around and drink frequently are at a greater risk for developing a drinking problem than children who are not exposed to alcohol growing up. This risk declines when the child is educated about the use and risks of using alcohol.

Children raised in a home where a drinking problem exists learn to model the behavior later in life and have a high risk for developing alcoholism.

A person's current environment also plays an important role in their risk of developing an alcohol problem. Pressure from friends to drink, living in a community where drinking is promoted, or being exposed to any situation where drinking is part of the culture can make it more difficult for a person to avoid unhealthy drinking patterns.

Working Together

At this point you may be wondering which effects are more important in determining a person's risk for alcoholism: those caused by genetics or those from the environment.

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