Most of us have heard the reference to something called the “addiction gene,” or the genetic predisposition that some people have toward developing a substance use disorder. With our DNA playing such a powerful role in so many of our individual tendencies and personality traits, it makes perfect sense that there is a genetic component to addiction.
While individuals with a strong family history of substance use are more likely to also struggle with addiction, the science community has not yet identified a particular gene responsible for it. As research continues, those who work in the recovery field will be among the first to welcome any new discoveries about the causes of addiction. But for now, having a family history of substance use is considered to be an influential factor in developing a substance use disorder.
Is Addiction Hereditary?
Even though a specific gene related to substance use has not yet been identified, it is safe to say that, to some extent, addiction can be hereditary. People who develop a substance use disorder tend to have children who will also grow up to struggle with this disease. In fact, 25% of the children of alcoholics are more vulnerable to developing an alcohol use disorder as adults.
The heredity mystery could lie in the recent discovery of an infectious agent called human endogenous retrovirus-HK2, from an ancient germ line in the human species. This agent appears to modify a nearby gene, one that is involved in dopamine activity in the brain. The study concluded that the HK2 is found more frequently in individuals with an intravenous opiate use disorder.
Another hypothesis is that the genetic connection is actually about the presence of mental illness in the family. Among individuals with a mental health disorder, there is a strong prevalence of co-occurring substance use disorders. The substance may have been used to self-medicate the symptoms of the mental health disorder, and then evolved into a comorbid substance use disorder.
Other Factors that Contribute to Addiction
While our genetics are thought to factor into one’s chance of developing a substance use disorder, it is not the only factor identified. Other contributing factors include:
- Brain Chemistry. The brain’s reward system and dopamine production is at the center of substance use disorders. There is some evidence that people with naturally low levels of dopamine are more vulnerable to substance use disorders.
- Undiagnosed Mental Health Disorders. Symptoms of a mental health disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder, or an anxiety disorder are numbed by the substance.
- Early Age Onset of Substance Use. Those who begin experimenting with substances in their preteen or early teenage years are more likely to develop a substance use disorder later in life.
- Environmental Factors. Adverse childhood experiences, such as growing up in a dysfunctional family, or having a history of neglect, abuse, or trauma, can be factors.
- Personality Traits. Certain personality characteristics, like impulsivity or being a non-conformist, or having impaired psychological processes, may be a contributing factor.
The Effects of Addiction
Whether you have a strong family history of substance use, or possess one or numerous other factors that might influence substance use behaviors, the resulting disorder can be devastating. When an individual develops an unhealthy pattern of substance use, it has a profound impact on all aspects of their life. Compulsive and chronic substance use will eventually contribute to an ever-increasing list of negative consequences. These might include:
- Loss of employment, career disruption
- Financial hardship
- Harm to romantic relationships, friendships, and workplace relationships
- Impairments in psychological functioning
- Cognitive impairment
- Health conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, liver disease, kidney disease.
- Aggressive or violent behavior
- DUI arrest
- Loss of custody of children
In addition to the adverse impact that addiction has on someone’s life, it also affects their family, social circles, community, and society at large. Early intervention is essential for reducing or minimizing the damage that a substance use disorder can cause. If you or a loved one is exhibiting signs of a substance use disorder, there is help available.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer both inpatient and outpatient programs, holistic addiction treatment, drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to heal each individual with respect and dignity, and reflects on our ongoing commitment to meet new challenges. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.