During Behavioral Health training at my job, a coworker mentioned something that shocked me and sparked an immediate intense discussion. He mentioned that alcoholism is hereditary. Everyone that participated in the discussion agreed with his statement with the exception of another colleague and me. During the discussion the instructor mentioned that is a proven fact that drug addition such as alcoholism is hereditary. Up until this point I was unaware that studies from several researchers have shown that certain people may be genetically disposed to this disease. The discussion pertaining to the genetically disposition towards alcoholism was one that challenged me. Surprised by this revelation and puzzled at the same time I decided to challenge this.
The purpose of my study is to examine generational families that include alcohol abuse. I am a child of two parents who abused alcohol and I am pretty aware of the consequences. Although I do not use alcohol, it was important for me to find out what consequences there are for me if I do. Am I genetically disposed to becoming an alcoholic? To what generation could this happen? What are the safeguards, if there are any, other than abstinence from alcohol intake? Should further research be conducted to determine if alcoholism is inherited or is alcoholism a disease chosen by individuals?
The Literature Review
Alcoholism as a disease lays the foundation to my query and why it was significant for me to seek answers. Clinicians, scientists and others dispute whether or not to refer to alcoholism as a disease. When you think about the damage that affect the body and mind due to alcoholism, the outcome certainly can be described as having transferred to a disease (Alcoholism-a Disease, 2009). Abusing alcohol eventually causes imbalances to the hormonal system; causes damage to organs, alter brain-cells, and stimulate nerve damage (Alcoholism – Disease 2009). People fairly understand the severity of alcoholism and how it can become life altering. Scientist have discovered that continuous alcohol abuse causes severe damage on the psyche which is more harmful than the damage caused to the heart, liver and other essential organs (Alcoholism-a Disease, 2009). It’s quite common for beginners and middle stage alcoholics to function normally, however over time this will change for (of) the worst. They will become stressed and less likely to handle their problems effectively. It is usually impossible for family members and friends to reach out to the alcohol abuser until it becomes a detrimental occurrence such as a life-threatening situation.
Most alcoholics are dependent on the use of alcohol. Dependency on alcohol is when the use of alcohol is needed for physical comfort (Fitzgerald, 1998). When an individual is alcohol dependent the start of their day is initiated by alcohol and their daily routine includes alcohol not to mention the alcohol usage may occur throughout the day and night. Goodwin (1979) pointed out that one out of twelve or one out of fifteen people abuse alcohol. This is very alarming. It has been discovered that alcoholism is genetically transmitted through the body chemistry, not through the mind or environment. This genetic component is passed on from generation to generation. It does not discriminate, it manifest where it will amongst rich or poor. Just like all inherited traits they are transferred during conception the same way one inherits their eyes and lips. Currently, there is less than a dozen genes that controls ones risk for alcoholism that have been identified, though more exist (Bierut and Nurnberger, 2007). Fitzgerald (1988) stated, “Children of alcoholic homes learn it; and some perverted guilty ways want it, court it and deserve it”. There was quite a bit of confusion at this point of my research on why one would believe that an individual would actually desire the state of being an alcoholic and following in the footsteps of their parents when they have first hand witnessed the outcome and affect it has. One could not imagine anyone craving to become an alcohol abuser.
Upon continuous reading on the heredity of alcoholism, it was learned that since ancient times it has been believed that alcoholism is hereditary (Alcoholism – a Disease 2009). This belief, however, was not proven until strong evidence surfaced on alcohol related behaviors from adoption studies conducted by Donald Goodwin and his colleagues (Fitzgerald, 1988). Revelations of the studies will be discussed in the latter of the paper. With multiple genes being involved with one another, an individual environment must be taken into consideration to be examined before one can classify and learn how the disease is all pulled together. According to Bierut and Nurnberger (2007) a psychiatric standard that is commonly used for detecting alcohol defenders requires three out of the four indicators be occurring by a person within the prior 12 months. Researchers have found that people who meet the following criteria regularly, their families has numerous cases of alcoholism; withdrawal responses, loss of control over the use of alcohol, tries to cut down or stop, and continue to abuse alcohol despite the physical and psychological problems resulting from alcoholism.
When you factor in all these actions and patterns one would come to the conclusion that the individual has a family history of alcoholism (Bierut and Nurnberger 2007). Some believe what lead individuals to drink was their personal problems that they wanted to block out of their mind by being intoxicated or, being raised in the environment of alcoholism and having the desire to experiment. In America between seven and twenty-eight million children live with their father and/or mother who drink alcohol (Fitzgerald, 1988). Being raised in a home where the adults’ abuse alcohol can be influential to the children to drink because they witness it and the alcohol is there so it’s easily accessible. Goodwin (1979) believes you can predict one will become an alcoholic if there’s a family history of it. This is a fair statement and may be a fact in some cases, but it would not be fair to apply that prediction to all individuals that are raised in an alcohol abusing environment. In addition, it was stated by Goodwin (1979) that one must be born without alcohol intolerance in order to become an alcoholic.
If one is born with alcohol intolerance they’re likely not to become alcohol abusers. He believed that if you are a child born to parents that abused alcohol you are likely to be tolerant to alcohol. While in the process of searching alcoholism, two vital studies and several adoption studies were performed by Donald Goodwin (Fitzgerald, 1988). One of the studies conducted by Goodwin, a researcher and psychiatrist in 1973 was of Danish men who at the time were thirty years old. The men were just six weeks old when the non-alcoholism families adopted them. Goodwin’s findings were that ones fathered by alcoholics were three times more likely to become alcohol abusers as compared to men who had been born to nonalcoholic fathers. In addition, he also found that the sons of alcohol abused fathers became alcoholics themselves, but at an earlier age (Fitzgerald, 1988). Also, in another study performed by Goodwin in 1974, he compared males born to alcohol abusers who lived in a home with alcoholics to their brothers who had been adopted and raised by nonalcoholic parents. The results were surprising.
He found that the brothers who lived with the nonalcoholic parents were no better off from becoming alcohol abusers than their brothers who lived and was raised in a home of alcoholism with their biological parents. This was surprising because though my personal belief is alcoholism is not hereditary, the reality is children are a product of their environment. If children are in a living situation where they are not exposed to the behavior of alcoholism then how is the alcoholism behavior learned. Of course you have television and peer pressure from others, but more than likely alcoholism will not become a routine if it’s not apart of the daily home environment. If children are raised in a home where the parents use inappropriate or explicit language, chances are the children will do the same. A statement made by Goodwin (1979) “The Strongest predictor of alcoholism is a family history of alcoholism. This does not mean that alcoholism is inherited. Speaking French also runs in families”. This statement is beyond a doubt well said. Second languages, talents, and uniqueness are things that could carry from generation to generation, but family members do not always acquire the talent of uniqueness.
Survey was conducted in person of three generation families, which consisted of three grandmothers, their son or daughter and their grandchildren. All of the grandmothers (1st generation) openly discussed their alcohol consumptions and mentioned they consumed some form of alcohol at least 4-5 times a week. Out of the 2nd generation group totaling five sons/daughters all with the exception of one female commented that they drink occasionally, ranging from 2-4 times a week. The 3rd generation group totaled 16 people, 12 females and four males. Out of this group of 16, five females and two males stated that they drink on occasions ranging from 5-7 times a year. The rest of the group, seven females and two males admitted to drinking socially on weekends and/or a couple of times during the week.
The survey contained questions pertaining to their alcohol intake, the environment in which they were raised, as well as their personal opinion on alcoholism and why they consume alcohol. The participants were all eager to complete survey as well as have an unexpected discussion on alcoholism. The completion of the survey and the intense discussion lasted roughly one hour. For the most part all the participants shared a common opinion on questions such as what makes one an alcoholic and if alcoholism is related ones environment.
The data from the survey concluded that all the participants stated that at least one of their parents abused or currently abuse alcohol. Four out of five of the 2nd generation participants noted that they were raised in an environment of alcoholism and alarming started consuming alcohol prior the legal drinking age of 21. The group that consumes alcohol regularly noted that they find it difficult to resist alcohol in social settings. More than half of this same group believes that their alcohol consumption would be less if they did not attend social functions.
Of the 24 people that participated in the survey seven are non-drinkers, but their parents and grandparents are alcoholics. The non-drinkers commonly believed that alcoholism is not necessary hereditary, but can be classified as a learned behavior. Interestingly, five of the seven non-drinkers mentioned that the main reason that they do not drink is because they fear alcohol addition. They consciously avoid drinking as they are aware of how alcoholism can hinder a family. In comparison of the researched data and the data from the survey it seems that there may be some truth to notion that alcoholism is inherited. However, in my research I failed to find any theories that alcoholism can also be due to ones environment or that it is a learned behavior.
Looking back, coming from a two-parent home in a situation where both parents abused alcohol I must disagree with some of my findings that indication that alcoholism is hereditary. My sister who was also raised in my home does not drink alcohol and can count on one hand the times she’s consumed it. I also do not drink alcohol so I’m confused on some level of how researchers determined that alcoholism in inherited. I of course can understand how they would form such opinion that alcoholism runs in families, but when I reflect on my situation and situations of some of the people that I surveyed that were raised in alcohol abused homes or off springs of alcoholics I fail to see how that theory was accurately proven. Perhaps research performed then is no longer relevant and/accurate. Thus, current research should be done to conclude if alcoholism is hereditary or is alcoholism a behavior that is chosen.
“Alcoholism-a Disease” (1991): Heredity Studies. Retrieved November 21, 2009 from www.wcg.org/lit/booklets/alcohol/adisease.htm
Bierut, L. & Nurnberger, J. (April 2007). Seeking the Connections: Alcoholism and our Genes. Scientific American 296, pp.46-53. www.web.ebschost.com.ezproxy.cnr.edu/ehost Fitzgerald, K. (1998). Alcoholism the Genetic Inheritance. New York Doubleday. Goodwin, D. (June 1979). The cause of alcoholism and why it runs in families. British Journal of Addition74, pp.161-164. Schuckit, M. (December 1989). Alcoholism and the New Genetic. British Journal of Addition 84, pp. 1441-1442