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Getting to the Roots of Addiction - Genetics, Nature and Nurture

Some addictions may have a genetic basis. Learn more about the roles nature and nurture play in addictive behavior.

When it comes to addictions to drugs, alcohol, or food, we often think that those who have the addiction bring it on themselves. Yet an overwhelming amount of new research suggests that this might not be the case. Addiction may, in fact, be a genetic disorder.

“Addiction definitely has a hereditary component,” says Mitchell Wallick, PhD, executive director of CARE Addiction Recovery in North Palm Beach, Fla. In fact, he points out, research has shown that even in twins separated at birth, if one twin has an addiction, there's a greater likelihood that the other twin will as well.

Indeed, many studies have shown that the role of genetics and heredity in addictions is quite real. Parents who are predisposed to a certain addiction will have children predisposed to that addiction. “We have PET scan studies of the brains of patients who are addicted and who have brain anomalies. Initially, we thought that addiction caused the anomalies,” says Dr. Wallick. “Further study of the children of these addicts showed that they also had a high instance of the same abnormalities and consequent addictive behaviors.”

Nature vs. Nurture in Addiction

However, just because a child is genetically predisposed to an addiction doesn’t necessarily mean that he will eventually become an addict. What it does mean is that his chances of becoming addicted to the associated substance or behavior upon exposure is that much greater. “Addiction should be thought of as similar to an allergy,” says Wallick. “First you must have a predisposition. This makes you more vulnerable. Next you must be exposed to the substance. You have to learn how to be addicted.”

Most experts agree that there is some component of both genetics and learned behavior in an addiction, but these two schools of thought lead to two different approaches to treating the condition, says Kristen McAleavey, PhD, an associate professor of social work at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. “There are arguments within the field that addiction is a moral choice, and it is viewed solely as a behavioral problem. This school of thought supports that someone diagnosed with an addiction can learn to moderate the behavior and cut back on the drug, that is, you can have one drink a week,” Dr. McAleavey says. And, she adds, people who believe genes are involved tend to say that “heredity supports the motto ‘once an addict, always an addict.’ The recommended treatment in this approach is more often a 12-step support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.”

The Riskiest Genetic Links to Addiction

Most addictions have at least some genetic component to them, but the greatest risks seem to be associated with alcohol, nicotine, and eating disorders, says Katherine van Wormer, PhD, a professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa and co-author of Addiction Treatment: A Strengths Perspective. “If one parent is an alcoholic, the child’s chances of developing alcoholism increase four-fold,” says van Wormer.

Of the research that’s been done on addiction, “one of the most significant findings is that children of alcoholics tend to have a high tolerance for alcohol even before they have developed a history of heavy drinking. They don’t get drunk quickly and can drink their friends under the table," says Dr. van Wormer. "Some people have a gene that is associated with rapid addiction to nicotine. And among women, eating disorders run in families.”

What You Can Do About Gene-Related Addiction

The good news is that parents with an addiction are not doomed to have children with that same addiction. Here are some strategies that can help:

Talk to your kids. “The most common reason for using drugs is the need to bury feelings,” says Wallick. “Parents who are open, show the right example, and teach their kids to deal with their feelings are more likely to have healthy kids.”

Stick to a schedule. “Within the home, a family can practice moderation versus overdoing it with things such as food, homework, and scheduling extracurricular activities,” says McAleavey. “A child who has structure can be taught guidelines and balance.”

Set a good example. “Parents need to avoid setting a bad example, such as by using prescription medication whenever they feel down or want to lose weight, for example,” says van Wormer. “When parents self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, the kids learn to do the same.”

Keep your eyes open. “It is better for a parent to intervene with a child sooner rather than later,” says McAleavey. “In other words, a parent needs to be on the lookout for certain behaviors, such as grade changes, discontinuing sports, changes in friends, or hidden drugs or alcohol.”

Though the risk of addiction may be something you inherit or pass on to your children, it can be controlled in numerous ways. So start talking about the subject early and often.

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