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What are the Risk Factors for Addiction?

The first thing everyone wants to know about addiction is what causes it. The causes of addiction are especially mysterious to non-addicts, to whom addictive behavior appears baffling and totally irrational. Why would someone choose a drug over his family or career?

Like most human problems, addiction comes from some mix of genes and environment. It’s not always clear where one leaves off and the other begins. For example, if you have a parent who is addicted to alcohol, you are more likely to be addicted to alcohol, and there are studies that have shown on average how much genes–as opposed to environment–contribute to that behavior, but just how much genes contributed to your behavior is likely to remain a mystery. What is clear is that having a close relative who has struggled with addiction greatly increases your risk of addiction too.

The reason it’s so difficult to distinguish the contribution of genes compared to environment is that the people most directly responsible for our genes also provide our early environment. We learn our attitudes towards drugs, alcohol, and life in general from our parents. If we grow up thinking it’s normal to drink heavily because our parents drink heavily, we are likely to internalize that as a baseline.

Having parents who drink heavily or abuse drugs also increases our exposure to those substances and increases the likelihood that we will try drugs and alcohol at an earlier age. This is significant because the earlier you start using drugs or alcohol, the more likely you are to become addicted at some point.

Parents who are too distant, unsupportive, or even abusive, whether or not those behaviors are related to addiction, also increases your chance of addiction. Social isolation, from family and friends is a major risk factor.

Mental health issues are perhaps the biggest risk factor in addiction. Depression, anxiety, antisocial personality disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are commonly associated with addiction. Often, the mental health issue comes first, but the addiction can also make the mental health issue worse.

The high overlap between addiction and mental health issues underscores the difficulty in untangling the relative contributions of genes and environment. There are multiple genes implicated in addiction. These genes control functions as diverse as alcohol metabolism in the liver and dopamine sensitivity in the brain. There are dozens of them, at least. There are also many different genes implicated in various mental health issues.

Despite this genetic minefield, nothing actually happens unless someone with the right mix of genes actually steps on a mine. That is, even with a genetic predisposition to addiction, you probably won’t become addicted unless your experiences and environment push you in that direction. Many with a predisposition pick up drugs and alcohol but don’t become addicted. Many more, do.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Gardens Wellness Center can help you detox and decide on a treatment strategy. Call us today at 844-828-1050 or email us at to learn more.