Alcoholism has no single cause, but rather, there is a myriad of risk factors that can play a role in the development of an alcohol use disorder (AUD). These risk factors interact uniquely in each individual and result in alcoholism in some, but not others – no one factor or collection of factors can determine whether or not someone becomes an alcoholic.
Both intrinsic and extrinsic factors can contribute to the development of an AUD. Intrinsic factors include biology/genetics, age, psychiatric conditions, personality traits, personal choice, and drinking history. Extrinsic factors include family, social/cultural norms, and education.
The endless number of factors that can impact the development of an AUD makes it nearly impossible to predict if an individual will experience a drinking problem. Although it is an individual’s own choice whether or not to begin consuming alcohol, research suggests that the development of an AUD after he or she has already started drinking is not often within a person’s control.
What is an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction (NIAAA), “alcohol use disorder” is a medical diagnosis given to “drinking that becomes severe” and “is a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.”
Psychiatric conditions can significantly increase the likelihood that a person will develop an AUD. For instance, persons who experience depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or social anxiety are much more likely to develop an AUD. In fact, more than 40% of bipolar patients and approximately one-fifth of depression patients abuse or are dependent on alcohol.
Many people with mental health issues use alcohol as a means of self-medication to cope with their symptoms. For example, some individuals with schizophrenia state that alcohol “quiets” the voices inside their head, and others with depression say that alcohol improves their overall mood. These habits may be more common among those who have not been diagnosed appropriately or who have been prescribed medication that is either ineffective or results in unpleasant side effects.
Personality and Personal Choice Factors
Certain personality traits may make it more likely that a person will develop an AUD than others. For example, people who are prone to be impulsive, disregard risk, or are less inhibited are more apt to engage in heavy drinking. Someone who wants to be “the life of the party” might become a heavy drinker because he or she erroneously believes that they are more likable or funny when intoxicated, and someone who is very shy and withdrawn might become a heavy social drinker to reduce their discomfort and inhibition in social situations.
The expectations that a person has about drinking also plays a key role – individuals who expect that alcohol’s effects will yield positive results are more likely to develop an AUD than those who have negative expectations about the use of alcohol.
Of course, it is a personal decision whether or not to consume alcohol. Moreover, someone who is determined never to drink (sometimes due to a family member who has an AUD) is certainly not going to develop an alcohol use disorder. Also, those who avoid social situations where drinking is common are also less likely to develop an AUD.
However, once a person begins consuming alcohol, personal choice has much less influence over whether they become an alcoholic when compared to other key factors.
Drinking History Factors
A person’s drinking history significantly increases their likelihood of developing an AUD. People with a lengthy history of drinking are more vulnerable to becoming an alcoholic than those who have drunk alcohol for much less time, and individuals who have consumed more alcohol on average than others are more likely to become an alcoholic. Alcohol use rewires the brain to desire and depend upon alcohol, and these effects are cumulative.
Contemporary research asserts that no single factor has as much influence on whether or not someone becomes an alcoholic as that person’s genetic makeup. The biological offspring of alcoholics are significantly more likely to develop alcoholism even if non-alcoholics raised them. Furthermore, the non-biological children of alcoholics who are brought up by alcoholics are less likely to develop alcoholism than biological offspring of alcoholics who are raised by alcoholics.
The genetic factors that contribute to an AUD are incredibly complex, but this is one thing we do know – a single gene does not directly cause alcoholism, but rather, a large number of genes are involved and interact with each other. More than 50 genes that influence alcoholism have been identified that impact many aspects of alcohol addiction.
For example, genetics dictate how easily and quickly alcohol is broken down in the system, how severe hangovers are, how alcohol makes a person feel, to what extent an individual engages in risky behaviors after drinking, and how likely someone is to quit or continue drinking.
The family life of an individual may play a crucial role in whether they become an alcoholic. Growing up in a heavily drinking family not only provides greater access to alcohol but also may even encourage drinking altogether. Drinking within families such as these may be glamorized and potentially expected.
Furthermore, growing up in a wealthy family makes alcohol more affordable, mitigating the financial distress heavy drinking generally causes, thereby making heavy consumption more likely. Research indicates that 78% of people residing in a household with an annual income of $75,000 or more regularly drink alcohol, but only 45% of people in households that annually earn less than $30,000 drink regularly.
Social and Cultural Factors
Social and cultural factors play a crucial role in exposing individuals to drinking, as well as reinforcing it as a routine practice. On the one hand, in countries and states where alcohol consumption is either legally banned or forsworn for religious reasons, alcohol may be inaccessible because stores either will not sell it or are not legally allowed to sell it. Likewise, the social cost of alcohol use may outweigh any perceived benefits.
On the other hand, in countries and states where drinking is culturally acceptable or encouraged, alcohol is readily accessible, and, in general, rates of alcoholism are much higher where drinking is culturally and socially accepted. Indeed, alcohol consumption is not only common on college campuses across the United States, but embraced, celebrated, and glamorized. Thus, individuals living on college campuses are especially likely to drink to excess, as well as participate in binge drinking, which is even more dangerous.
Moreover, sociocultural perceptions of alcohol affect treatment. Cultures that condemn drinking are less likely to establish treatment programs, and individuals within such cultures may avoid entering treatment because they might incur the social stigma of being labeled an alcoholic.
A person’s likelihood of developing alcoholism is significantly tied to their age. The general trend of alcohol use in association with age reveals that individuals usually begin drinking in their late teens or very early twenties, have their drinking peaks in their mid- to late twenties, and slow their drinking down by their early thirties. As such, individuals entering their drinking peaks in their early or mid-twenties exhibit the highest rates of suffering from alcohol use disorders.
Curiously enough, the younger a person is when they first begin consuming alcohol, the more statistically likely they are to develop alcoholism later in life, well past the years where others slow their drinking down. And, this is most likely in people who begin drinking before age 15.
Education also correlates directly with alcohol consumption, such that the more highly educated an individual is, the more likely they are to drink. In the United States, 80% of college graduates regularly consume alcohol, compared to just 52% of those individuals who have not attended college. Furthermore, college grads who regularly drink are 61% more likely to have consumed alcohol within the previous 24 hours than those who have not attended college or graduated.
Treatment for Alcoholism
Alcoholism is a devastating condition but can be treated effectively using a long-term integrated, evidence-based approach that includes behavioral therapy, counseling, psychoeducation, and group support.
Our addiction treatment center employs caring medical staff who specialize in addiction and deliver these services with compassion and expertise. We provide clients with the tools they need to recover and enjoy long-lasting sobriety and wellness.
You CAN restore happiness and harmony in your life – contact us now to find out how we can help!