Is Addiction a Disease? Understanding the Genetics of Addiction
By Tim Stoddart
Is Addiction in Your Genes?
You are not necessarily destined to a life of alcohol or drug abuse.
The challenge: Addiction seems inevitable when one or both parents have substance abuse problems.
The science: Research shows that only 50-60% of addiction is genetic and no one is destined to be a drug addict.
The solution: Avoid situations where addictive substances will be present and focus on healthy relationships, especially in the pre-teen and teenage years.
Our genes deliver information that directs our bodies’ basic cellular activities. But did you know that your genes are almost identical to anyone else’s? It’s only a 0.01 percent variation that makes you unique.
Within that 0.01 variation, scientists are studying subtle variations called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that can hold the key to truly understanding the role of genetics in addiction. More research must be done on the subject to give us a better understanding.
Epigenetics may also play an important role in the genetics of addiction. Epigenetics is the study of functional and sometimes inherited changes in gene activity. Among other things, drug abuse can change the structure of your DNA and impact your health and the traits that are passed down to your children.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about genes and addiction, but we’d love to explore the topic further with you. If you have any questions or comments, please reach out. We try to respond to all real-life questions personally and promptly.
Quick Statistics on Genetics and Addiction
Fact # 1. With over 20 million drug users in the United States, substance abuse is a problem that affects many of our families.
Fact # 2. According to the American Medical Association, addiction is a disease. It’s a disease that affects the brain and causes dysfunction, discomfort and distress. But how important are its genetic roots?
Fact # 3. If you have a parent who struggles with addiction, you’re twice as likely to abuse a substance yourself. Fortunately, the research shows that no one is destined to be an addict.
Is There an Addiction Gene?
To understand the genetic factors of addiction, we must first understand that there is no such thing as an addiction gene. Studies done on mice have shown us that there are many genes associated with addiction. Mice are used in research to draw conclusions about humans because their reward pathways and underlying genes function much in the same way.
Identical twins have the same genetic makeup, so they are a good subject for evaluating the genetic role of addiction. If one identical twin becomes addicted and another does not, this disease cannot be purely genetic. Multiple studies have confirmed this to be true while acknowledging that genetics do play a role. One study attributes 48-58% of addiction to genetics with the remainder attributed to environmental factors. This study looked at 861 pairs of identical twins and 653 pairs of fraternal twin pairs. It found that one identical twin has a high probability of becoming addicted to alcohol when his or her sibling was addicted, but the study did not find the same to be true for fraternal twins.
Even though studies confirm that genetics play a role, they also tell us that genetics do seal our fate. It may be more difficult for those with genetic factors, but everyone is capable of avoiding addiction.
If Your Mom or Dad’s an Addict, Will You Be, Too?
If addiction is in your family history, you’ve seen how much destruction this disease can leave in its wake. Using addictive substances is riskier for you because you are more likely to fall victim to addiction. Choose to be among the resilient ones who say no to addictive substances.
Follow these tips to keep your life free of drugs and alcohol:
1. Avoid drugs in the pre-teen and teenage years.
The rational part of your brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 25, so it’s best to avoid addictive substances until then. Teenagers process information with the amygdala, which is the emotional part of the brain. Adults think with the rational pre-frontal cortex. The majority of adults with substance abuse disorders began using before age 18 and were addicted by 20.
Not all teens who experiment with drugs will become addicted, but this is a crucial time for those who are prone to addiction. If someone you love falls into this category, now is the time to get involved and start talking about drugs. He or she is more likely to avoid a life of addiction by abstaining now.
2. Avoid being around drugs and alcohol.
It’s easier to abstain from something when it’s not present. If you constantly put yourself in a position where you have to say no to drugs or alcohol, you’re risking your sobriety. Teens who have close friends who abuse alcohol are more likely to do so themselves. The same holds true for friends who use illicit drugs. Avoid temptation and choose to spend time with people who abstain or drink in moderation.
3. Avoid binge drinking.
Moderation is always a good idea. It helps you set healthy habits and avoid extreme intoxication, and it can help you from becoming an alcoholic. One study that followed the binge-drinking habits of college students over 10 years found that those who were in the habit of binge drinking were more likely to develop alcoholism. When you do drink alcohol, try to limit yourself to two glasses.
4. Foster healthy relationships.
People with insecure attachment styles may be more prone to addiction, but with conscious effort, we can all form healthy and secure relationships. If you feel like you have trouble connecting with the people around you, consider therapy or a support group to help work through these issues.
What If You Need Help?
If you or someone you love succumbs to addiction, all is not lost. Recovery is an option. The key is to get help from a rehabilitation specialist to handle withdrawal, overcome cravings, and regain sobriety.
Regardless of genetics, we are all in control over our own lives.
None of us are destined for substance abuse. It may take more effort for some than others, but every person has the power to avoid the preventable and curable disease of addiction.