How Does Family History Impact Risk for Drinking Problems?

All professionals who deal with alcohol-related issues know that a family history of diagnosable alcohol problems can significantly increase a person’s chances of developing his or her own pattern of problematic drinking. However, researchers are still exploring the ways in which such a history manifests in the present. In a study published in July 2014 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, a team of U.S. researchers used measurements of situations in which people will consider buying alcohol to uncover some of the dysfunctional, alcohol-related behaviors that can pass through generations of families affected by alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism.

Drinking Problems

Doctors and public health officials once used the term “drinking problem” to denote the presence of alcoholism, a form of addiction linked to persistent, alcohol-related changes in the brain’s normal function. However, the term now generally applies to both alcoholism and non-addicted alcohol abuse. As of May 2013, doctors in the U.S. no longer officially address alcoholism and alcohol abuse separately. Instead, they use a modern diagnosis called alcohol use disorder, which covers the symptoms of both of these problems, whether they appear in isolation or together. Specific symptoms used to define the disorder include a need to drink in increasing amounts in order to feel intoxicated, a repeated lack of success in limiting alcohol intake, the presence of a strong urge to keep drinking, exposure to serious alcohol-related personal or social repercussions and the continuation of excessive drinking after such an exposure. The number of symptoms present out of a maximum of 11 establishes a case of the disorder as mild, moderate or severe.

Alcohol and Family History

Researchers have pursued several lines of investigation in order to uncover the ways in which family history influences the odds for alcohol problems. They have concluded that about 50 percent of any person’s risk for developing such problems is determined by a complex interaction between genes inherited through family bloodlines. In addition, they have concluded that the average child of a person with alcoholism has a roughly 300 percent greater chance of falling into a problematic pattern of drinking than a child born to parents not affected by alcoholism. However, having a genetic history for drinking problems does not make the manifestation of these problems a foregone conclusion, and over 50 percent of all children with such a history never qualify for a diagnosis. In addition, a number of non-genetic influences within family units also shape the risks for alcohol-related problems, including factors such as the relationships that parents maintain with each other and the relationships that parents maintain with their children.

Uncovering Family-Related Risk

In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from the University of Memphis and the University of Georgia used an examination of 207 young adults enrolled in college to help uncover some of the ways in which the risks for alcohol problems pass from generation to generation. Each of these participants had been involved in the intoxication-inducing form of drinking called binge drinking at least once in the month prior to the start of the study. During the study, all of these individuals took tests specifically designed to reveal two things: how much alcohol they would consider buying if they knew they had no particular obligations to fulfill the following day, and how much alcohol they would consider buying if they knew they had to take an exam the following morning. After reviewing the alcohol-related family history of each participant and comparing the results of the alcohol-purchasing tests, the researchers came to a couple of conclusions. First, they found that, regardless of family history of alcohol problems, all of the students were willing to buy considerable amounts of alcohol when they knew they had no obligations to fulfill on the following day. However, they also found that the average student with a genetic family history of alcohol problems extending back one or two generations (i.e., to a parent or a grandparent) was significantly more likely to buy large amounts of alcohol despite having to take an exam the following day. By uncovering the differing alcohol purchasing patterns in young adults with a family history of drinking problems, the study’s authors believe they may have found a way to pinpoint part of the manner in which genetic risks for such problems pass down generations.

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