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Is alcohol use disorder inherited?

Decades of research show that alcohol use disorders run in families. But genes aren't the only reason. Even if you're prone to alcohol use disorder, you can take steps to prevent it.

When it comes to questions of nature and nurture, the answer is seldom clear-cut. Alcohol use disorder—sometimes called alcoholism—is no exception.

Based on research to date, experts believe that many different genes can contribute to a person's risk for alcohol problems. But genes alone won't cause a person to develop an alcohol use disorder. Lifestyle choices and environmental factors also play a role in the disease.

The good news is that alcohol use disorder isn't inevitable for anyone, and research into how and why the disease develops may lead to improved prevention and treatment.

The genetic connection

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, research shows that genes account for about half the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Strong evidence for this comes from studies of identical twins.

There is no one "alcoholism" gene. Instead, some genes that affect alcohol metabolism are thought to be a factor—including a gene that may be protective because it causes a person to become nauseated and flushed when they drink. Researchers are still studying all of the different effects individual genes can have on a person's risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.

Taking charge

Plenty of people who have a family history of alcohol use disorder never develop problems with alcohol. If you have a family history of this disease, you can reduce your risk by:

  • Avoiding underage drinking. Research shows that people who start drinking at a young age are at higher risk for alcohol problems.
  • Talking to a professional. Discuss your concerns with a doctor, nurse or other healthcare provider. He or she may refer you to a group or organization or perform a medical assessment of your drinking habits and attitudes. You can also get individualized advice on your own decisions about alcohol.
  • Choosing not to drink. Drinking in any amount may be especially risky for you. Some people with a family history of alcohol problems find it difficult to drink moderately and can slip easily into heavy drinking patterns.

Reviewed 4/12/2021

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