Alcohol & Health
Helping Alcoholics
Where Does My Call Go?
Updated on February 2, 2023
6 min read

Why Do People Become Alcoholics?

There is no single cause for alcoholism. Numerous factors account for why some people are at a higher risk of developing alcoholism. These include:

  • Societal factors
  • Environmental factors
  • Psychological factors
  • Genetic factors

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.

Why Do Others Not Become Alcoholics?

You may wonder why some people become alcoholics and others don’t. Some people can consume alcohol in large amounts without developing an addiction or alcoholism because of the following factors:

  • Unique biology
  • Background
  • Psychology
  • Genetics

Developing alcoholism has nothing to do with willpower. It is a disease that can impact anyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, body type, or personal beliefs.

To avoid developing alcoholism, drink responsibly or avoid alcohol entirely. Understanding the risks of developing AUD can also help you avoid it.


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9 Risk Factors of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

1. Gender

Gender affects a person’s problematic drinking rate and the likelihood of experiencing alcohol-related consequences. Studies show that some men face inherent risks when it comes to drinking that are different from the dangers some women face. Examples from the study include:

  • Men start drinking earlier than women
  • Men are more likely to binge drink
  • Men display problematic drinking behaviors earlier than women
  • Women can get intoxicated much faster than men
  • Women are more susceptible to long-term health problems
  • Women who drink excessively can develop cognitive problems much faster than men

2. Family History 

Alcoholism has often been described as a family disease because it affects the family and the person suffering from the disease. Alcoholism also sometimes runs in families.

It is common to have multiple members of one family who struggle with alcohol addiction. Studies show that genetic 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 children of non-alcoholics. However, even if alcoholic parents didn't raise you, you could still develop alcoholism.

3. Genetics 

A large percentage of a person’s overall risk of developing alcoholism is due to 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, they have identified some genes. This includes two genes related to alcohol metabolism: ADH1B and ALDH2. Both are known to have the most substantial, known effects on the risk of alcoholism. 

Other genes related to alcoholism or alcoholic traits include:

  • GABRA2
  • CHRM2
  • KCNJ6
  • 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. This means it is more likely to appear in people 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 their symptoms. Mental disorders can worsen with alcohol use. This often 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 teenagers face, 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.

Studies show that people who live near establishments that sell alcohol are more likely to drink. On the other hand, people who are not often exposed to alcohol are more likely to abstain. 

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 people who have suffered abuse turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. This habit can develop 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 people more likely to turn to alcohol to cope. Chronic stress exposure can lead to ongoing alcohol use and, in some cases, 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 people using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria.

Signs 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, 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, and/or hallucinations

Even experiencing one of these symptoms of alcoholism is a cause for concern. If you are experiencing two or more of these symptoms, get an evaluation from a medical professional immediately.

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Can You Become an Alcoholic Later in Life?

You can still develop alcoholism later in life, even if you've never abused alcohol before. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), older adults are now drinking alcohol more than ever. 

In one study of people aged 60 to 94, 62 percent of the subjects drank alcohol. Researchers reported 13 percent of men and 2 percent of women drank heavily. Research has found that approximately one-third of older people with alcoholism 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 a person’s chances of successfully overcoming AUD. Treatment options for AUD include:

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

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Updated on February 2, 2023
10 sources cited
Updated on February 2, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
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  5. Edenberg, Howard J, and Tatiana Foroud. “Genetics and alcoholism.” Nature reviews. Gastroenterology & hepatology vol. 10,8 : 487-94. doi:10.1038/nrgastro.2013.86 
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