5 Risk Factors for Alcoholism You Shouldn’t Ignore

Dec 12, 2023

Experts often say alcohol addiction is one of the great equalizers, alongside other diseases like cancer and heart disease. What they mean is that every human being is vulnerable to these ailments, regardless of race, age, ethnicity, religion, gender, or socio-economic status.

That said, our destiny isn’t entirely in the hands of fate regarding any disease, including substance abuse. We each have certain risk factors — some inherited, some not — that we should consider when making daily decisions. For example, if my mother had heart disease, I’m going to be at risk for it, too. As such, it makes sense for me to go to all my regular checkups, eat more non-processed foods, exercise, and actively work to reduce my stress level.

Alcoholism also has risk factors, many of which we can control, and that will help us steer clear of falling into the trap of addiction. While there are probably too many reasons to count why a person becomes addicted to alcohol, our alcohol rehab staff here at Renaissance Ranch believe the following are the most prevalent:

5 Risk Factors for Alcoholism You Shouldn’t Ignore

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1. Age, Lack of Maturity

One of the most vulnerable times for people to fall prey to alcoholism is when they are young, generally under the age of 26, and still developing physically and mentally. Unfortunately, this is also when peer pressure, the desire to experiment, and risk tolerance are at their highest levels and parental oversight is minimal.

According to current and past national studies, the 18 to 25 demographic usually holds the lion’s share of past-month binge and heavy drinking. In 2022, nearly 30% of people in this age group reported binge drinking within the past month. They also lead in the category of having had an alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the past year at 16.4%.

Drinking habits formed during young adulthood can also be hard to break. Many emerging adults tend to “mature out” of excessive drinking as they take on new responsibilities like work, maintaining a home, or starting a family.

On the flip side, a growing number can’t or won’t give up the heavy drinking lifestyle. One study showed that roughly half of college students who qualified as having an AUD at 19 still met the criteria at age 25. A disturbing trend considering binge drinking rose among 26- to 39-year-olds at a rate of 5.8% over last year, more than double that of 18- to 25-year-olds (2.4%).

2. Genetics

Your genes play a massive role in who you are and how you look and function physically and mentally. Genes can also influence your susceptibility to AUD by 50% to 60%. Inherited traits include the ability to metabolize alcohol at a high rate or suffering from low levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter that relaxes the brain and lowers stress). Each of these conditions tells your body that you must drink more than average amounts of alcohol to gain the pleasurable effects.

Geneticists agree that several genes are likely involved in determining a person’s propensity to develop an alcohol addiction, mainly because alcoholism is such a complex disorder.

One such gene is ADH1B. It slows the liver’s ability to metabolize alcohol into acetaldehyde and, from that, to acetate. In the slowdown, the body retains too much acetaldehyde, which in turn causes uncomfortable body and face flushing and nausea. The populations with a greater prevalence of this particular gene thus have a lower risk for developing an AUD simply because of the adverse physical reaction they experience after drinking alcohol.

3. Family History, Environment

The characteristics you inherit from your parents and grandparents include the home environment they created for you. For example, your risk for alcohol and drug abuse is much lower if you come from a loving, stable, two-parent household where there is a strong belief in a higher power, and you were raised to respect yourself and others.

In contrast, if one or both of your parents regularly drank to excess, did drugs, or perhaps abused, neglected, or abandoned you, the danger of engaging in risky behaviors like heavy drinking rises dramatically. That’s not to say stable families don’t have kids who fall into destructive behaviors or vice versa.

Another situation where your environment plays a huge role in raising your risk level is peer pressure. If you are surrounded by siblings or peers who regularly abuse substances and encourage you to do the same, resisting the urge to join will be extremely tough and abstaining could end up in social isolation. This principle applies to adults as much as it does to children. Think of the last professional event where you didn’t feel the need to have an alcoholic beverage in your hand while mingling. Hard to come up with one, isn’t it?

4. PTSD and Other Stressors

When you experience a stressful situation, your adrenal glands pump a steroid hormone called cortisol into your bloodstream. Your body regulates the cortisol in your system to deal with the tense situation and then return to a healthy balance. The problem with chronic stress is that the body never shuts off the cortisol, leaving you tired, moody, irritable, and weak. Prolonged high cortisol levels also can cause obesity, high blood pressure, and depression.

At first, alcohol seems like a good idea, since it reduces cortisol levels and relaxes your brain and body. This is why people enjoy a cold beer or a nice glass of wine to decompress after work. However, in the long run, you’ll still end up with the same bad health effects, as heavy drinking will eventually lead to high cortisol.

Many people with alcohol use disorder can directly connect their substance abuse to PTSD. Roughly 30% to 60% of people who have sought treatment for an AUD also qualify as having PTSD. Those numbers tend to be higher in specific, at-risk populations such as combat veterans, first responders, and those who have endured childhood trauma.

“We see a lot of patients with co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse issues, so we feel it’s critical to include trauma-informed and other mental health therapies with our drug and alcohol rehab programs,” said Preston Dixon, COO at Renaissance Ranch, a faith-based treatment center headquartered in Bluffdale, Utah.

5. Mental Illness

According to Rand, roughly half of those with alcohol use disorder have a co-occurring mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Another study found that 33% of test subjects in treatment for an AUD were also diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

Depression and anxiety represent the mental disorders that most often accompany alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, only a fraction of people with AUD get the specialized treatment they need with the appropriate mental health therapy.

“It’s like you’re only treating half the problem,” Dixon explained, referring to alcohol detox centers that don’t offer mental health resources. “You significantly improve your chances of sustained sobriety when you address both issues simultaneously.”

For information on our substance abuse programs, give us a call at 855-736-7262.