Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

What scientific evidence says about the genetic factors

Accumulated evidence indicates that alcoholism is hereditary. 

However, professionals and researchers are often reluctant to accept heredity as a significant cause of alcoholism, partly because they are committed to the common misconception that alcoholism is caused by social, cultural, and psychological factors. 

Genes may influence the alcoholic’s reaction to alcohol to alcohol, these professionals admit, but can genes explain every nuance of the alcoholic’s behaviour? What about his personal problems, including his troubled marriage, financial difficulties, emotional insecurities, and his belligerent refusal to stop drinking? People do not inherit functional or nonorganic psychological issues, as many insist that alcoholism cannot be hereditary.

Once again, the consequences of alcoholism are confused with the causes. The weight of evidence links alcoholism to heredity. 

In a landmark study, psychiatrist and researcher Donald Goodwin provides clear and strong corroboration that alcoholism is passed from parent to child through genes. Goodwin was able to separate hereditary influences from environmental influences b studying the children of alcoholics who were taken from their parents at birth and adopted by nonrelatives. He postulated that if alcoholism were inherited, these children would have a high rate of alcoholism even though they were not living with their biological alcoholic parent. If environmental influences were more critical, the adopted child would be no more likely to become an alcoholic than children of nonalcoholic parents.

Goodwin found that the children of alcoholics have a much higher risk of becoming alcoholics – four times that of nonalcoholics – despite having no exposure to their alcoholic parents after the first weeks of life. They were also likely to develop the disease earlier in life, usually in their twenties. On the other hand, the children of nonalcoholic parents showed relatively low rates of alcoholism even if reared by alcoholic foster parents. 

Photo by Andrik Langfield from Unsplash

Is there a link between alcoholism and emotional problems?

Goodwin compared the children of alcoholics with those of nonalcoholics and discovered that the two groups were “virtually indistinguishable” regarding depression, anxiety neurosis, personality disturbance, psychopathology, criminality, and drug abuse. Psychiatric problems are not relevant to the onset of alcoholism.

In a second adoption study, Goodwin compared the sons of alcoholics who were adopted and raised by an unrelated family with their brothers who an alcoholic parent had raised. He found that the children raised by biological alcoholic parents were no more likely to become alcoholics than their brothers raised by nonrelatives.

These astonishing findings shatter those theories which insist that the children of alcoholics become alcoholics themselves because they learn bad habits from their parents or model their behaviour on that of their alcoholic parent. 

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism

They also destroy one other misconception – the belief that problem drinking and alcoholism are directly related. The terms “alcohol abuse and alcoholism” are commonly used to imply that the former causes the latter. Most people believe problem drinkers, or those who use alcohol to solve personal problems, become alcoholics. Problem drinkers, the theory goes, abuse alcohol because they are unhappy, lonely, depressed, angry, hostile, unemployed, divorced, poor, or generally dissatisfied with life. As they drink more and more often for relief, they become addicted to alcohol.

Goodwin not only failed to find this connection between alcoholism and problem drinking; he found an inverse relationship: the children of nonalcoholic parents had a much lower rate of alcoholism but were more likely to be heavy or problem drinkers. 

Goodwin summarized the results, “Our findings tend to contradict the oft-repeated assertion that alcoholism results from the interaction of multiple causes – social, psychological, biological…the ‘father’s sins’ may be visited on the sons even in the father’s absence.” Problem drinking appears to be caused by psychological, emotional or social problems, while hereditary factors cause alcoholic drinking.

Goodwin’s studies prove that alcoholics do not drink addictively because they are depressed, lonely, immature, or dissatisfied. They drink addictively because they have inherited a physical susceptibility to alcohol, resulting in addiction if they drink. 

Treatment of alcoholism

Moreover, this evidence has profound implications for treatment. While it may be possible to teach the problem drinker how to drink more responsibly, the alcoholic’s drinking is controlled by physiological factors that cannot be altered through psychological methods such as counselling, threats, punishment or reward. 

In other words, the alcoholic is powerless to control his reaction to alcohol. Abstinence, therefore, is the only “treatment.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, call Freephone 0800 140 4044

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