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Why Do People Become Alcoholics?

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Alcoholism is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world. Unfortunately, alcohol consumption often leads to addiction, known as alcoholism. 

Nearly 6% of American adults and 2% of American adolescents suffer from an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Around the world, over 107 million people are estimated to have an alcohol use disorder.

If someone you know or a loved one has a drinking problem, you may wonder why some people become alcoholics and others don’t.  

Numerous factors account for why some people are at a higher risk of developing alcoholism, including genetics, psychological, social, and environmental factors.

Why Do Others Not Become Alcoholics?

Some people can consume alcohol even in large amounts without developing an addiction or alcoholism. The reason that some people can drink alcohol without developing alcoholism is because of their unique biology, background, and other factors.

Developing alcoholism has nothing to do with willpower. Alcoholism is not a “bad habit”, it is a disease that can impact anyone – regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, body type, or personal beliefs.

To avoid developing alcoholism, people should consume alcohol responsibly and understand the risks of developing an alcohol use disorder.

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9 Risk Factors of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

1. Gender

Gender affects a person’s rate of problematic drinking and their likelihood of experiencing alcohol-related consequences. 

Men face inherent risks when it comes to alcohol consumption that are different from the dangers that women face. Men tend to start drinking earlier than women, which can contribute to the development of alcoholism. Men are also more likely than women to participate in binge drinking, which can lead to addiction. 

One study of people seeking alcoholism treatment showed that men also displayed problematic drinking behaviors (including regular intoxication and a loss of control over drinking) earlier than women.

While men are more likely than women to develop alcoholism, women face other alcohol consumption risks, including an earlier rate of intoxication and various health consequences. 

2. Family History 

Alcoholism has often been described as a “family disease” because it affects the family as a whole and individually.

However, alcoholism also runs in families. It is not uncommon to have multiple members of one family who struggle with alcohol addiction. Studies show that genetics and social factors cause family members of alcoholics to be more likely to develop alcohol dependence. 

Children of alcoholics are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than others, even if they are not raised with an alcoholic parent.

3. Genetics 

A large percentage of a person’s overall risk of developing alcoholism is due to their genetics. 

Studies show that genetics are responsible for about half of a person's risk for AUD. While researchers are still learning which genes impact alcoholism, some genes have been identified, including two genes of alcohol metabolism, ADH1B and ALDH2, that have the most substantial known effects on risk for alcoholism. 

Studies have identified other genes in which variants impact risk for alcoholism or related traits, including GABRA2, CHRM2, KCNJ6, and AUTS2.

4. Mental Health Issues

Individuals who suffer from one or more mental illnesses are more likely to develop alcoholism. Alcoholism is a common comorbidity with mental illnesses, meaning that it is more likely to appear in patients with a mental disorder. 

Approximately one-third of alcohol users have a mental illness. 

People with mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder, are more likely to resort to alcohol and drugs to cope with mental illness symptoms. Mental disorders can be made worse by alcohol use, which perpetuates the cycle of dependency.

5. Age 

A person’s age can influence their likelihood of developing alcoholism. Young people who begin drinking at an early age are 50% more likely to become alcohol dependent as adults than people who wait until after age 18 to start drinking.

Older adults are at an increased risk of developing alcoholism. Older individuals often develop alcoholism for the first time later in life, known as late-onset alcoholism.

6. Impaired cognitive function 

People with cognitive impairment are at an increased risk of developing alcoholism. Impaired cognitive function can cause young people to make choices that favor immediate gratification, such as binge drinking, leading to an alcohol use disorder. 

Impaired cognitive function is one reason why teenagers often experiment with alcohol consumption and develop problematic drinking habits. In addition to the peer pressure faced by teenagers, their brain and cognitive abilities are not fully developed at such a young age, which can cause them to make impulsive decisions concerning alcohol.

7. Environment 

A person’s environment impacts their risk of developing alcoholism. Someone who is often near alcohol is more likely to drink and develop unhealthy drinking habits, whereas individuals who are not often exposed to alcohol are more likely to abstain.  

Studies show that people who live near establishments that sell alcohol are more likely to drink.

8. Abuse or trauma

People who have suffered abuse or trauma in childhood are more likely to engage in alcohol or substance use later in life. Many individuals who have suffered abuse turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, a habit that later develops into a full-blown addiction.

9. Chronic Stress

People who work stressful jobs or live in stressful environments are more likely to develop alcoholism. High-stress situations make individuals more likely to turn to alcohol to cope with their stress in their daily lives. 

Chronic stress exposure leads to ongoing alcohol use and eventually addiction.

How Do You Know if You’re an Alcoholic (Signs)?

Knowing the risk factors for alcoholism helps to identify if you are more susceptible to developing the disease. To diagnose alcoholism, doctors evaluate patients using criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

The signs that you may have alcoholism include:

  • Drinking more or for longer than intended
  • An inability to reduce or stop drinking alcohol
  • Spending an excessive amount of time drinking alcohol or getting over the effects of alcohol
  • Cravings or a strong need or urge to drink
  • Drinking that interferes with taking care of the home or family
  • Drinking despite it causing a problem with family or friends
  • Cutting back on or giving up activities that were previously important or enjoyable in favor of drinking
  • Engaging in risky behaviors while drinking alcohol
  • Continuing to drink even despite it causing depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems
  • Memory lapses or ‘blackouts’ while drinking
  • An increased alcohol tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms including trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, sweating, or hallucinations

Even experiencing one of these symptoms of alcoholism should be a cause for concern. If you are experiencing two or more of these symptoms, you should get an evaluation from a medical professional who can diagnose whether you have an alcohol addiction.

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Can You Become an Alcoholic Later in Life?

Even if someone has never had any alcohol consumption issues, they can still develop alcoholism later in life.

Alcohol use is becoming more common among older persons. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), older adults are now drinking alcohol more than ever. 

In one study of older persons aged 60 to 94 years, 62 percent of the subjects drank alcohol, and researchers reported heavy drinking in 13 percent of men and 2 percent of women.

Research has found that approximately one-third of older alcoholic persons develop a problem with alcohol in later life.

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Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction

Most people with alcohol addiction benefit from treatment. 

Unfortunately, less than 10% of alcoholics undergo any form of therapy. Receiving treatment can increase an individual’s chances of successfully overcoming AUD.

Treatment options for alcohol addiction include inpatient, outpatient, detox, or partial hospitalization treatment programs. The right treatment for an alcoholic depends on their individual needs and the severity of their addiction. 

To find alcohol addiction treatment, talk to a medical professional who can diagnose your addiction and recommend the right treatment for you.

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Updated on March 14, 2022
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