Alcohol Abuse in Families

Alcohol use disorders may have genetic tendency towards abuse rather than dependence

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Are alcohol use disorders genetic? Some aspects of alcohol abuse appear to run in the family, but not all aspects of alcohol dependence.

A recent study looked at 1,120 twins for genetic links for alcohol use disorders. Results found genetic links between alcohol abuse, but not alcohol dependence.

The behavior associated with the abuse of alcohol was common among family members, whereas the physiological reaction and dependence to alcohol as a substance was not common among family members.

"Alcohol problem? Call a therapist."

Kenneth S. Kendler, MD, professor of psychiatry at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, led the investigation.

Alcohol abuse refers to risky drinking behavior that interferes with a person's ability to either go to work, make safe decisions, stay out of legal trouble or maintain functioning social relationships.

Alcohol dependence refers to the abuse of alcohol to the point of where stopping drinking would result in withdrawal symptoms, increased tolerance for alcohol and serious alcohol abuse over time.

For the study, 1,120 twins from the Virginia Adult Twin Study of Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders were used to assess genetic contributions to alcohol use disorders (AUD): alcohol abuse (AA) and alcohol dependence (AD).

Results of the study showed shared risk for AA more than AD in families.

Family members did not share early age at onset of drinking, similar types of tolerance to alcohol or withdrawal symptoms.

Rather, family members did share similar symptoms of alcohol abuse and getting into social and legal trouble due to drinking.

Dr. Kendler said, “Symptoms of alcohol abuse do a better job of reflecting the familial risk for alcohol use disorders than symptoms of dependence.”

“This is not what we expected. Clearly the symptoms of alcohol abuse may have more validity than they are commonly given credit for.”

By separating AA and AD, subtle, but important differences were found in the understanding of genetic contributing factors in AUDs.

This differentiation could be useful in AUD treatment plans. 

This study was published in September in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Funding for this study was provided by the National Institutes of Health, no conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 24, 2012
Last Updated:
September 26, 2012