You probably know that alcoholism, also called alcohol use disorder, happens when someone drinks so much their body becomes addicted to/dependent on alcohol. Over time, alcohol “rewires” the individual’s brain, so that it continually depends on and craves more alcohol. Alcohol virtually takes over their life.
But what leads to alcoholism in the first place? That’s a question researchers are still trying to answer.
To date, nobody has been able to pinpoint one specific cause. Experts have, however, been able to identify a number of important risk factors.
When it comes to the risk of developing alcoholism, biology matters. Studies have shown that the biological children of alcoholic parents are much more likely to become alcoholics themselves. (This is true even if those children are raised by non-alcoholic parents.) Although there’s no question about the fact that genetics play a role—at least 51 related genes have been identified so far—there’s very little understanding of exactly how they function and what role they play.
Trauma—be it emotional or physical—and certain mental health issues present a clear risk for developing alcoholism. Said mental health issues can include:
- bipolar disorder
- anxiety/social anxiety
Individuals struggling with these conditions—particularly those who haven’t sought professional help, or who are wary of pharmaceutical side effects—may try to self-medicate with alcohol. They may feel alcohol calms anxiety or gives them an emotional boost. The statistics are telling: 40 percent of bipolar individuals abuse alcohol, as do 20 percent of those suffering from depression.
Starting to drink at a young age dramatically increases the risk of developing alcohol use disorder. But growing up can involve all kinds of challenges: hyperactivity, low self-esteem, peer pressure, and academic stress, just to name a few. Teenagers—and some even younger children—might see alcohol as a way to help themselves deal with these challenges. This is especially true if alcohol is part of the family culture, its use common and easily accepted by their closest relatives.
People who’ve been drinking for years are much more likely to develop alcoholism than those who only recently picked up the habit.
How much you drink matters, too. It’s simple logic: The more you drink, the less aware you are of how much alcohol you’ve consumed. Your ability to govern your drinking deteriorates. The more you drink, the more likely your brain will become dependent. Unfortunately, those changes are cumulative.
How do you know if you’re drinking too much? The risk thresholds are different for men and women:
- More than 14 drinks a week constitutes a risk for males.
- Females who drink more than 12 drinks a week put themselves at risk.
- Binge drinking—i.e., consuming more than 5 drinks per day, at least one day a week—constitutes a risk for both genders.
Bottom line, alcoholism develops gradually, and may do so for a number of reasons. Recognizing the risk factors can be critical to avoiding, recognizing, and/or dealing with this disorder.