At the start of the year, a 23-year-old Burnsville man was arrested for DWI in St. Cloud and held at the Stearns County Jail. When he called for a sober driver, his 54-year-old father arrived to pick him up and was given a standard voluntary breath test for alcohol. Unfortunately for both men, the father blew a .11—above the .08 legal limit. After the father admitted he had driven to the jail to collect his son, deputies arrested him on fourth-degree DWI charges and both father and son spent the night in the same jail cell.
While this story may, at first glance, elicit some eye rolls and chuckles, the fact remains that drunk driving is a serious problem. Compounding this problem is the genetic link regarding alcoholism in families.
A person’s health and risks are the product of the interplay between one’s genes and one’s environment. Some diseases—such as sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis—are purely genetic and caused by an error in a single gene; however, other diseases—alcoholism included—involve several genes.
Alcohol and drug use
While it is a personal choice as to whether someone decides to use drugs and/or alcohol, such choice is also influenced by a number of other factors: biological, sociocultural, psychological, and familial. A growing body of research suggests that the risk of developing alcoholism or drug addiction issues is influenced by genetics. The scientific consensus is that approximately half of the risk for alcoholism and addiction is genetic.
Whereas everyone has the potential for addiction thanks to evolution and the fact that our brains are hardwired to look for items that increase our pleasure, some people are more predisposed than others. Further, repeated drinking and/or drug use serves to rewire one’s brain. Even those with a low genetic predisposition to addiction can eventually rewire their brain through the repeated use of drugs and/or alcohol, especially if such indulgence occurs during one’s early, formative years.
Whereas there is no specific identifiable addiction gene, scientists have identified several biological and genetic factors that increase one’s predisposition to these conditions. Even though genetics have been shown to contribute half of the risk for alcoholism and drug dependence, not everyone who uses these substances do so regularly or become addicted.
In addition to heredity, other environmental factors play a role. This nonhereditary factor acts as a catalyst and can include work-related stress, drug accessibility, peer pressure, physical or other abuse, or witnessing violence, for example.
Another factor is one’s parents and family life. In fact, a family history of drug and/or alcohol dependence has been linked to significantly contributing to the risk of a child developing a similar condition. Several twin and adopted children studies suggest that alcoholism and drug dependence run in families. In fact, a child with an alcoholic parent is approximately four times more likely to develop alcohol problems than the general population. Scientists believe that a person’s risk for alcohol or drug problems increases if s/he is in a family in which an alcoholic parent has certain psychological problems like depression, both parents abuse drugs and/or alcohol, the parents’ alcohol or drug abuse is severe, and there is violence in the family. Further, children of alcoholics are at a higher risk for other behavioral and emotional problems.
While the aforementioned example demonstrates that a link does exist for alcoholism within families, genetics are only half of the equation. But half is still quite a bit.