We often hear of people having an addictive personality, or even that addiction runs in families.
It does bring up the question: “Why does one person get addicted to drugs or alcohol and another doesn’t? Is addiction linked to genetics?”
Is it possible to be predisposed to addiction? Is there a genetic link to addiction? If your parent or relative struggles with drug or alcohol addiction, do family genetics mean there’s no hope for you?
We’re going to answer all of these questions for you in this article.
Keep reading to learn about the genetic predisposition to addiction and general addiction tendencies based on your DNA.
What Is Addiction?
The American Society of Addiction Medicine states that addiction is a direct effect of the reward and motivational part of our brains being affected by an overwhelming need to “pursue reward or relief by substance use and behaviors.”
Alcohol addiction is one of the most common addictions in the United States.
An estimated 15.1 million people have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
While most of us immediately think of alcoholism when we think of addiction, you can be addicted to many different substances and/or behaviors.
Some other examples of common addictions include:
Any substance or behavior that affects your pleasure and/or reward system in the brain has the potential to become an addiction.
Is Addiction a Disease?
Addiction is defined as a chronic disease of the brain that affects you mentally, physically, and socially.
Addiction directly disrupts normal brain function that impairs your judgment, learning, motivation, memory, and reward/relief systems.
Genetic Links to Addiction
As with other diseases, there are a number of factors that contribute to the development of the disease.
These factors include social settings, environmental factors, behavioral factors, and family genetics.
Let’s get a little bit more into the genetic predisposition associated with addiction.
There has been a scientific effort to uncover the specific genes that would result in addiction and drug abuse disorders.
This brings up two questions: “Why would there be genes for addiction anyway? If addiction is so harmful, shouldn’t those types of genes have already been eliminated from our population due to natural selection?”
Some argue that “addiction genes” may have helped our early ancestors to promote motivation and feelings of pleasure/reward for things like gathering food, procreating, etc. Once these genes are in place to reward us, it can affect how we behave with other things that give us pleasure, like drugs and alcohol.
There has been some success in finding particular “addiction genes.” As with most things concerning genetics, there is no one specific “addiction gene.” Instead, it’s a complex system of different genes and chemicals that can lead to addictive tendencies.
One common gene found in many drug addicts and alcoholics is a gene that affects dopamine receptors in the brain, specifically the DRD2 gene.
Dopamine is this “feel good” chemical in your brain. When you do something pleasurable (like drugs), your brain releases dopamine, which makes you feel good and makes you want to do more of that thing.
If your dopamine receptors are changed or more receptive to dopamine, it could make it easier to become addicted to drugs.
This is just one example of a potential “addiction gene” found by scientists. Hundreds of other genes can contribute to a predisposition to addiction. See some more examples here.
Some of the most telling facts about addiction and genetics are genetics looking at family history and relatives with addiction.
Studies show that genetics amount to up to 50% of the likelihood that you’ll develop an addiction.
How do we know this? One study looked at over 1,000 sets of twins. Identical twins have the same genetic make-up. Therefore, if addiction were solely genetic, we would assume that if one twin had a substance abuse issue, the other twin would as well.
However, they found that if one twin had an addiction, the other twin was likely to have an addiction. But, they found that if one twin had an addiction, it didn’t mean the other twin had an addiction too.
In simple terms, this study found that genes have a large factor in addiction since the likelihood of twins having an addiction was high.
However, when one twin had an addiction, many of their twins with the same genes did not have an addiction.
This indicates that other factors that contribute to addiction besides genetics, even if addiction is linked to genetics.
Other studies support these findings.
This leads to the consensus that genetics amount to half of the predisposition/risk of developing an addiction.
Children of Parents Struggling with Addiction
When thinking about addiction’s genetic component, we have to look at the history of drug addiction in families.
One of the easiest ways to study the genetic links to addiction is to look at the children of those struggling with addiction.
These individuals struggling with substance abuse pass on their genes to their children. So, if there is a genetic link, logic tells us that the children of these individuals should also have substance abuse issues at one point or another. They should at least be at a much higher risk of addiction compared to children of those that do not have drug or alcohol issues.
And studies have found that this is, in fact, the case.
Children of those struggling with addiction are eight times more likely also to develop an addiction than children of individuals without substance abuse issues.
Another study showed that people who use drugs are more likely to have at least one parent that also uses drugs.
Is It Really Genetics? Digging Deeper
After everything we’ve just gone over, from the specific genetic findings to the family statistics, you might think it’s definite that genetics is the factor that causes addiction.
While it’s true addiction is linked to genetics, there are questions related to how much this means in terms of genetic predisposition.
However, we can’t ignore the behavioral and social aspects of family life that have nothing to do with genetics.
Children growing up with parents who normalize drug and alcohol use may simply use drugs because socially, it seemed normal. This doesn’t have to do with their genes; it has to do with their social environment.
While family statistics and studies show a link between genetics and addiction, it’s also important to remember that addiction is a complex disease with many factors, including social and behavioral factors.
Other Factors that Can Lead to Addiction
Continuing with this idea, let’s look at some other factors that can contribute to addiction besides “addiction genes.”
Some of the most significant risk factors for addiction include:
- Mental health disorders, such as depression, eating disorders, anxiety, etc.
- Emotional/physical trauma
- Peer pressure
- Pop culture exposure
- Easy access to drugs/alcohol
- Social environment
Predisposition Is Not Certainty
This brings us to a very important point.
Just because you’re predisposed or have a higher risk of developing an addiction doesn’t mean you definitely will.
Your entire family could struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, and you could have multiple “addiction genes.”
But this does not mean addiction is inevitable for you.
If you feel you have many risk factors and can feel yourself potentially going down the wrong path, you can learn coping skills and enter treatment before an addiction develops.
Understanding your risks as a child or relative of someone who struggles with substance abuse can be a way to regulate your drug use. It can also help you understand you’re predisposed to addiction, which might motivate you to seek help before things get worse.
Each of these factors could lead to a higher risk of addiction, no matter what genes you have.
Addiction is complex and is the result of not one but many factors.
Genetics could be a big part of what leads someone down the addiction path, but it’s not the only factor. Although it is still essential to be aware that addiction is linked to genetics.
Family Genetics and Addiction: Bottom Line
You’ve probably heard that alcoholism is a family disease, and on some level, that’s true.
Addiction is linked to genetics and drug abuse disorders.
However, it’s also important to recognize that addiction is a complex disease that cannot be pinpointed on one factor or cause. It’s a myriad of social and biological triggers that come together to form the perfect storm known as addiction.
If you or a family member is struggling to stay sober, contact us today.
We can help those suffering from addiction overcome their reliance and live a healthier, more stable life.