Yes, Alcoholism Is Hereditary. But There Are Ways To Fight
Alcoholism runs in families, a fact recognized since ancient times. Although familial alcoholism has long been attributed to an inherited “weak character,“ until recently most researchers thought it was almost entirely the result of environmental influences: imitation of parental drinking habits, poverty and other social and family pressures.
However, studies conducted in the last 15 years, including a 1972 investigation of 69 hospitalized alcoholics in St. Louis and their siblings and ongoing studies of twins and adopted children in Scandinavia, have shed important new light on the genetics of alcoholism.
The findings indicate that for at least half the nation`s 10 million alcoholics, hereditary factors overwhelmingly determined their development of the disease. Researchers have identified as important influences such inherited characteristics as how an individual metabolizes alcohol, hormonal and behavioral effects of alcohol and tolerance of high levels of alcohol in the blood.
On average, as Swedish studies of adopted children clearly showed, the children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics. This risk prevails even if the children are adopted early in life by people who do not abuse alcohol.
Rather than implying that some people are doomed to alcoholism, the findings suggest new ways to identify those at risk and to help prevent them from becoming alcoholics.
Just as people who have inherited a predisposition for developing coronary heart disease can take precautions, those at risk of developing alcoholism can learn to recognize potential problems and modify their drinking behavior accordingly.
First and foremost, the children-and grandchildren-of alcoholics must be aware of the risk to their health. At a national conference earlier this year on the genetics of alcoholism that was organized by the New York State Division of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, Robert V. Shear, director of the division, cited the results of a telephone survey conducted last December among 2,000 randomly selected state residents aged 16 years or older.
While 16.6 percent of the respondents said that one or both of their parents were alcoholics, only 5 percent of those surveyed knew that the children of alcoholics faced an increased risk of developing the disease.
UNDERSTANDING THE RISKS
Yet, the findings suggested, lack of awareness can increase the chances of alcoholism developing. In the survey, the children of alcoholics who did not know of their higher risk drank three times as much and seven times as often as those who knew they might be predisposed to alcoholism. Those who were not aware of such a link were much more likely to drink to intoxication than those who recognized their risk.
In other words, simply knowing about the risk helped the grown children of alcoholics to control their own drinking better.
Even if you are not the child of an alcoholic but are a blood relative of one, the risk is formidable. At the alcoholism conference, Dr. Theodore Reich of the Alcohol Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis described his study, conducted from 1978 to 1983, of 243 alcoholics and their families. Among the 202 men, 38 percent had alcoholic fathers and 21 percent had alcoholic mothers, 57 percent had alcoholic brothers and 15 percent had alcoholic sisters, 32 percent had alcoholic sons and 19 percent had alcoholic daughters.
Of the 41 women, the rates of alcoholism among their parents, siblings and children were similar.
Familial alcoholism tends to develop early in life, Reich found. By age 25, 32 percent of the sons of the alcoholic fathers in the study had become alcoholics; of the sons of alcoholic mothers, half had become alcoholics by age 25.
At this rate, Reich projected, by age 40, more than half of the men and women with one alcoholic parent will have developed the disease; among those with two alcoholic parents, 60 to 65 percent will be likely to have it.
By contrast, for individuals in the general population, alcoholism will eventually develop in about 3 percent of the women and 8 to 10 percent of the men, national health statistics show.
Scientists searching for precise genetic factors that predispose families to alcoholism have found one thing that actually protects against alcoholism: the lack of an enzyme that breaks down acetaldehyde, a stimulating but toxic substance formed in the body from alcohol.
This enzyme deficiency is especially common among Asians, two-thirds of whom suffer ill effects from small amounts of alcohol, Goodwin reported. The resulting build-up of acetaldehyde can cause those with the deficiency to become flushed, dizzy, headachy and nauseated after drinking only a little alcohol.
In general, women and Jews are also more likely than Gentile men to experience such effects from alcohol, Goodwin said. On average only about 5 percent of Caucasians are affected by alcohol in this way, he added.