Air Date: 07/07/10 Dr. Rebecca Jankovich, PhD can be reached at 322-1839.Inheritability AlcoholismShuckit, M. MD. "Update on Alcoholism", Audio-Digest Psychiatry, Vol 39, Issue 08, 4-21-2010.It takes about 15 years for new medical findings to be accepted by the public and by health care providers as true. We have research that shows a predisposition to alcoholism is inherited, but most people still believe alcoholism is caused by a weakness of character, a flaw in the personality; there's a strong stigma attached to being diagnosed an alcoholic. We tend to believe there's a failure of will power in the moral fiber of the person who drinks too much. If our attitudes towards addiction could catch up with the medical findings, maybe more alcoholics would be able to admit they have a problem because they wouldn't also be signing up for the label of weakness. Here's some of what we know about the heritability of alcoholism About 60% of the risk of becoming alcoholic is biological and inherited; the other 40% of the risk comes from how you're raised to think about alcohol, stress, and if you hang out with people who drink too much. The 60% that's biological comes from multiple genes relating to multiple characteristics of risks; it's not any one gene, but many different combination of genes that lead to the same outcome: predisposition to handle alcohol differently from those who don't have problems controlling their drinking. If one of your parents was alcoholic, then your risk of being alcoholic is increased four fold; yes, you have a 400% greater chance of not controlling your drinking because you may have inherited a combination of genes that makes your body manage alcohol differently. One of the genetic predispositions that leads to alcoholism is a lower level of response to alcohol than most people experience. If you don't have a predisposition to alcoholism and your blood alcohol level is say .08, then you're pretty sensitive to the effects of alcohol; your speech is slurred, your motor skills are impaired, you might get drowsy. If you do have a predisposition to alcoholism then you're probably not going to be as sensitive to the effects of alcohol as those who don't have the predisposition; if your blood alcohol level is .08, you won't have the same impact of slurred speech, impaired motor skills or drowsiness. Since young people drink for the effect of alcohol, not for the taste, then someone with a lower sensitivity to the effects of alcohol will drink a whole lot more to get the same effect as someone who has a higher sensitivity to alcohol. With this dynamic in place, the young person predisposed to alcoholism drinks a lot more at a time than do people without the predisposition. The high levels of drinking tend to select who these kids hang out with and they gravitate towards other kids who also drink a lot; the kids without the drinking problem don't like hanging out with the high volume drinkers. The peer environment slowly shifts so the kids with alcohol problems are hanging with the kids with alcohol problems. Everyone they know drinks the way they do so what's the problem? They may or may not perceive their drinking pattern as a problem because their best buds are just like them. The best predictor we have for whether someone will drink to the point that alcohol becomes a serious problem in their lives is this sensitivity to alcohol which is inherited. Low sensitivity means more alcohol is used to get the same effect means more alcohol usage. Add to this alcohol sensitivity a few personality factors and environmental factors that influence the other 40% of the likelihood someone will develop a problem with alcohol. Those who have high levels of impulsivity when sober and those who struggle with Bipolar Disorder, are at greater risk of developing alcohol problems. People who seek relief from stress by altering their state of consciousness with drugs or alcohol are at greater risk of developing alcohol problems. People with poor coping skills are at greater risk of developing alcohol problems. Having a problem with alcohol does not mean you're weak; it means you inherited some biological predispositions that make it more difficult for you to manage alcohol. If you have kids and you or your parent had trouble with alcohol, teach your kids they're at risk of have low sensitivity to alcohol. Teach your kids good coping skills; don't just punish them for screwing up--teach them better problem solving. Model for your kids that grown ups tolerate stress and unhappiness, they suffer through it rather than escaping with a drink or a toke. Talk about alcohol in your home; talk about the problems your family has endured because of alcohol. We're not embarrassed to inherit asthma or diabetes; to better control alcohol in your family, it's a good time to get over being embarrassed to have inherited a predisposition to alcoholism.