Alcohol remains one of the most commonly used substances worldwide, with 87.6% of American adults reporting that they drink and 24.6% reporting recent binge drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Despite the widespread prevalence of alcohol use disorders, however, just 1.4 million adults sought professional treatment in 2012. Many others avoid seeking treatment because of concerns about effort, cost, or effectiveness. Although some people struggling are hopeful that there may be a medical cure for alcoholism, the science suggests that this goal may be far away, if it ever comes at all.
Genetic Basis of Alcoholism
There is not one “alcoholism gene” that predisposes a person to have difficulty controlling alcohol use. However, scientists have discovered numerous gene variants that alter a person’s risk of developing alcoholism. Experts estimate that approximately 50% of the risk for alcoholism comes from a person’s genes.
So what does this mean? Basically, someone with a first-degree relative — a mother, father, sibling, or child — who is an alcoholic is at significantly greater risk than the average person. Having multiple relatives with alcohol use disorders increases risk even more.
However, genes do not tell the entire story. Sometimes, a person with parents and siblings who struggle with alcoholism does not develop an alcohol problem. This is because there is not a one-to-one correspondence between genes and alcoholism. A person may have genes that elevate risk of an alcohol use disorder but may never touch a drop of alcohol. Conversely, someone with no family history of alcoholism may develop a drinking problem. Genes are a piece of the puzzle, but they do not tell the entire story.
Other Contributors to Alcohol Use Disorders
Several environmental factors increase risk of alcoholism, regardless of genetic contributions. For example, alcoholism is higher in areas in which it is easy to obtain alcohol or there is a strong drinking culture. These factors encourage beginning drinking at a younger age, which places a person at risk of alcoholism. Additionally, stress or mental health problems like anxiety and depression increase the likelihood of problematic drinking.
Is Finding a Cure a Viable Goal?
Scientists continue to search for effective strategies to combat alcoholism, but the chances of finding a cure for alcoholism remain slim. One of the greatest challenges to finding a cure is that alcohol problems are caused by such a wide variety of factors. Genes play a role, but 50% of risk can be attributed to environmental variables. Things get even more complex when considering the ways that environmental factors may impact people with risk genes differently than those without genetic risk factors.
There will probably never be a “one size fits all” cure for alcoholism, given the enormous variability in the age, genetics, social circumstances, and drinking histories of people with alcohol use disorders. However, research on alcoholism treatments continues to advance. Certain medications can be prescribed to ease the withdrawal process and reduce cravings. Additionally, psychotherapy has been shown to be very effective in helping people understand the factors that perpetuate alcoholism.
Fighting Alcoholism With Genetics
One day, it may be possible to more precisely treat alcoholism by matching people to treatments based on individual characteristics. For example, perhaps a 60-year-old male with a family history of alcoholism would benefit from a particular form of psychotherapy compared to a 20-year-old woman with problematic binge drinking. Using genetic information to match people to treatments may dramatically improve treatment success and give hope for a cure for alcoholism.