The inheritance of addictions


There is no doubt that alcohol addiction can be a familial problem.

We may not like to admit it, but some of us are hard-wired to become addicted to smoking, drinking, gambling or even drugs.

Sociologists might insist that the factors causing addictions are largely environmental. But for most conditions it is often difficult to disentangle the relative contribution of inheritance and environment.

In Malta, overindulgence in alcohol is a problem even in 16-year-old children. A report by the European School Survey Project (2011) found that 86 per cent of 16-year-olds had used alcohol, and more than half of them admitted to binge drinking, which is one of the highest rates in the EU.

Drug addiction has become a serious problem affecting  an estimated 185 million  people worldwide. In Malta too, this is a problem. A survey carried out by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction in 2013 found that 4.3 per cent of Maltese aged over 18 used cannabis and over one per cent used more dangerous drugs.

Drug use is much more common among the younger population. A study of university students (C. Camilleri & L. Cefai, 2009) showed that 10 per cent of students admitted to using drugs (particularly cannabis).  Other studies show that among university students,“internet gambling was the favoured way to gamble”  and concluded that 3.1 per cent indicated probable pathological gambling.

There is no doubt that alcohol addiction can be a familial problem. First-degree relatives (children and siblings) of alcoholics or drug addicts are eight times more likely to develop an addiction. Children of alcoholic parents, even when adopted by non-alcohol-drinking families, have a three-to-four-fold  increase in the rate of alcoholism compared to the rest of the population.

The standard and age-respected way of distinguishing such issues is to study the habits of identical twins, reared in different environments – for instance when adopted by separate families. These studies can distinguish those conditions which are hereditary in nature from those which are due to the effects of upbringing and  other relevant social issues which mould our final persona, with all its faults and blemishes.

It has been shown that when one of the twins was addicted to alcohol, there is a good likelihood that the other will also be affected; it has been concluded that  genetic factors account for 50 to 60 per cent of the tendency to addiction.

More recently, and as a result of the enormous advances that have been made in the analysis of the human gene structure (‘genome’), much work has gone into linking individual human characteristics with a specific  gene or group of genes.

Smoking is another very common addiction. In Malta, according to data from the World Bank, one in three men and one in five women smoke regularly.

‘Smoke-related genes’ have been located on chromosome 15, which is responsible for increasing the risk for early initiation of smoking, and genes on chromosome 8 that are responsible for increasing the risk of addiction.

Apparently, these genes control the production of specific proteins in the brain (called ‘acethylcholine receptors’), which control the reaction one gets to smoking, which may vary from dizziness to pleasure and which may increase the risk of addiction.

So why do people become addicts? There is no one single reason for this.  Environmental , familial and biological factors are all involved in this phenomenon. Genes are only one mechanism. Other biological factors include gender (men more commonly affected than  women) and ethnicity (some races  are more prone to develop adverse reactions to alcohol).

Environmental factors, including particularly the influence of family and friends, and socio-economic conditions have a significant influence. When one speaks of familial influences, one has to bear in mind that genetic as well as environmental factors run in families and the two can be distinguished from each other only with considerable difficulty.

It is to be emphasised also that genes do not have absolute control over our behaviour. They only facilitate or inhibit our tendency to certain activities. The final decision as to which pathway we take remains within our rational control. But, being only human, there is no doubt that within a facilitating environment, when friends and family members smoke, drink or take drugs, or in the ready availability of venues where such activities are encouraged, the chances of succumbing to a habit become so much more difficult to resist.

[First published: on 11 Dec 2016 10:37am]

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