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What Causes Alcohol Dependence?

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Chronic, heavy, and prolonged alcohol use carries the risk of developing addiction. But what other risk factors cause alcohol dependence? Is it simply a matter of drinking a lot during college, or is it something more biological like genetics? 

There are a number of risk factors that can lead to the spectrum of alcohol use disorder (AUD), whether that is mild, moderate, or severe. Knowing these risks can help you reduce the chances of developing this potentially fatal condition that is responsible for killing 95,000 Americans every year


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What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

The National Institute of Health defines alcohol dependence as a chronic disease in which a person craves alcohol and is unable to stop their drinking despite negative consequences. 

Over time, the person needs to drink more to have the same effect and may experience withdrawal symptoms when stopping use. They define alcohol dependence as an alcohol use disorder (formerly known as alcoholism).

The symptoms of AUD include:

  • Drinking more or longer than intended
  • Intending to cut down but unable to
  • Spending a lot of time drinking
  • Frequently feeling sick or getting over the after effects of drinking a lot
  • Wanting a drink so much that it took over other thoughts
  • Drinking interferes with your job or family life
  • Stopping other activities in favor of drinking
  • Drinking worsens other mental health problems like depression or anxiety
  • Blacking out when drinking, not being able to remember what happened the next day
  • Getting involved in more risky activities that you may not if you were not drinking
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping drinking, like insomnia, shakiness, sweating, nausea, a racing heart, and restlessness

Key Facts About Alcoholism in the U.S.

According to a 2019 National survey, approximately 14.5 million people aged 12 and older had alcohol use disorder, including 9 million men and 5.5 million women. However, only 7.2 percent of them receive treatment. 

A staggering 95,000 Americans die from alcohol-related emergencies every year. This is an increase of 47 percent between 2006 and 2014. 

Alcohol use disorder is the third leading preventable death in the United States. The main  causes of alcohol-attributable death were due to chronic conditions caused by alcohol, including: liver disease, stroke, heart disease, digestive and liver cancers, cardiac problems, breast cancer, and hypertension. 

Alcohol-related driving incidents accounted for 19,142 deaths in 2019 – 28 percent of overall driving fatalities.

What Causes Alcohol Dependence?

There are a number of risk factors for developing alcohol dependence. While those include specific factors, like how much, how often, and how quickly people consume alcohol, there are other factors at play. Those include social, environmental, psychological, and biological factors. But alcohol dependence can affect anyone, regardless of age or gender.

The main risk factors include: 

  • Drinking at a young age: Those who began drinking before the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop alcoholism than those who wait until age 21.
  • Genetics and a family history of alcohol problems: Around 60 percent of those who have family members dependent on alcohol may go on to develop it themselves. Scientists have linked alcohol dependence to 51 genes that can make family members susceptible to developing drinking problems. However, this risk factor is also influenced by the person’s environment, like being around a parent that drinks a lot. 
  • Environmental factors: Aside from being exposed to a parent who regularly or harmfully consumes alcohol, other environmental factors include exposure to alcohol marketing, proximity to bars and alcohol retailers.
  • Social factors: College, a drinking culture at work, or friends who drink regularly are all contributing factors to someone consuming large amounts of alcohol and potentially developing addiction.
  • Mental health conditions and a history of trauma: Alcohol addiction often occurs alongside other mental health conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). An inability to cope with stress or poor overall coping mechanisms are also a reason why one may turn to substances to relieve stress.
  • A history of trauma: The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study showed a strong link between childhood trauma and addiction in later life.
  • Identifying as LGBTQ+: This population is disproportionately impacted by alcohol use disorder, with as many as 30 percent being affected compared to 9 percent of the general population developing AUD.

While there are an extensive number of risk factors associated with alcohol dependence, drinking alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop an addiction. In fact, just over 10 percent of those who engage in excessive drinking (i.e. binge drinking, defined as 4 or more drinks on any occasion for women and 5 or more drinks for men) go on to develop alcohol dependence. But the rates of alcohol dependence increase with the amount of alcohol consumed. Sadly, around 30 percent of people who binge frequently are alcohol dependent. 


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Putting This Information to Good Use

This blog post is meant to be helpful for those who have a number of risk factors for AUD, or for someone who might want to increase their awareness about the impact of alcohol use. 

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available, call 800-948-8417 Question iconCalls are forwarded to these paid advertisers .


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