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Do your genetics make you more likely to become an addict?
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Family history may influence your risk of needing drug rehab. - photo by Amy Rothermel
If someone in your family is suffering from addiction, you may be wondering if there is a link between addiction and genetics. This is a valid question -- one often asked in the world of addiction and recovery services. If you think a family member is using drugs, you may want to know if others in your family may also be susceptible to addiction.

Fortunately, there has been a lot of research about factors that might encourage addiction, including genetics.

Genetics and environment affect health

There are a lot of reasons why some people are more vulnerable to addiction than others and end up needing rehabilitation services.

The risk for almost any illness is determined by a combination of genetics and environment. Diabetes, for example, can have a genetic component, but lifestyle factors also play a huge role in whether someone is impacted by the disease.

Addiction is an illness, and just like any other disease, your chances of suffering from it will be determined by the same two factors.

When most people think of "environment," theyre reminded of weather and climate; but theres a lot more to it than that. The environment is also determined by your culture/society, family situation, where you work, what you eat, and your hobbies -- both past and present.

Addiction and family history

Because there are so many different factors that can affect addiction risk, its sometimes difficult to separate one from the other. This is especially true for genetics. Families often share both genes and environment, so it's hard to know which factor is truly responsible for someone struggling with addiction.

Many studies have found that theres a link between addiction and family history. One study found that if someones parents suffer from drug or alcohol addiction, that person is eight times more likely to also develop an addiction. But how much of that risk is from genes versus the environment?

The case for a genetic link

A large number of addiction studies focused on twins appear to have the answer. One study compared addiction rates and risk for identical twins and fraternal twins.

They found that for identical twins, if one was addicted to alcohol, the other had a high probability of also becoming addicted.

When they repeated the study for fraternal twins, they found a much weaker link between one twins addiction and the other twins risk.

Because identical twins (who share identical genes) are more likely to share the same addiction risk than fraternal twins (who only share some of the same genes), it makes an argument for a genetic link for addiction -- outside of environmental factors.

This study concluded that between 48 and 58 percent of addiction is linked to genetic factors.

What does this mean for your family?

This means that if someone in your family has suffered from addiction, there's a greater risk that other family members may suffer as well. But its important to remember that addiction isnt always caused by genetics.

The environmental factors mentioned above can be enough to cause addiction, even in a person who has no genetic risk at all. And if someone abuses drugs or alcohol, it slowly rewires the brain. The longer they use addictive substances, the stronger the wiring becomes, greatly increasing chances of developing an addiction.

How to reduce risk

Whether or not your family has a genetic predisposition, there are always things you can do to help reduce the risk of addiction. The easiest way to do so is by abstaining from drugs and alcohol. And communication with family members is also key.

Tell them about your concerns and try to learn more about how other members of your family became addicted. If you find that their addiction stems from their environment, learn from their example and avoid putting yourself into similar situations.

The most important thing to do is to remain aware of the potential risk you or your loved ones might have based on family history. Keeping that in mind will prepare you to be proactive when you see signs of addiction. That way, you can offer the right guidance to yourself and others if it becomes a problem.
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