What are Some Alcoholism Causes and Risk Factors?
Author: Christine Roth
Last Updated: 6/21/2022
Alcoholism can affect anyone, regardless of age or background. However, some factors may put you into a higher risk category for developing complicated or dangerous relationships with alcohol, and, as such, you may be encouraged to have an elevated degree of awareness and take precautions with your habits surrounding interactions with alcohol.
Many of the risk factors listed below are heavily associated with early interactions and personal or societal perceptions of alcohol. While some factors, such as genetic or personality factors are not fully understood, there is significant evidence that they do carry a considerable amount of weight about your risk of developing alcoholism.
It is important to know that just because you may fall into higher-risk categories or be associated with several risk factors below, you are not inherently going to develop alcoholism. There are many ways to develop and maintain healthy relationships by drinking alcohol in moderation.
1. Psychological Factors
While not all people with psychological conditions may experience problems with alcohol, they are often at an increased risk of developing alcoholism. Many psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia are at a significantly increased risk for alcoholism.
For many people suffering from psychological conditions, especially in cases where the condition is undiagnosed or untreated, alcohol acts as a coping mechanism to help soothe the symptoms of these disorders. For example, some people with bipolar disorder, especially during episodes of mania, are more prone to engaging in risk-taking behaviors and may be prone to binge drinking. Schizophrenia also shows an alarming rate of comorbidity with alcohol use disorders with a reported one-third of patients meeting the criteria for an alcohol use disorder diagnosis.
It is important to note that many men are less likely to seek professional treatment for psychological conditions they are experiencing. This, in turn, leads to a significant lack of diagnosis, often putting them at a higher risk for co-morbid conditions such as alcohol use disorders.
Additionally, psychological conditions may make recovering alcoholics more prone to relapse which is why many people find treatment programs that include counseling to be very beneficial in their recovery.
2. Personality Factors
Personality factors are similar but different from psychological factors in regards to their impact on your relationship with alcohol. Much like psychological factors, many personality factors are extremely complex which makes it hard to determine your exact degree of susceptibility to alcohol use disorders.
One personality factor that does play a large role in your susceptibility is dependent on your perception of alcohol and its effects; this is often closely tied to and dependent on familial and environmental factors early in your life. Those that perceive heavy drinking as “cool,” believe that it makes you more fun, and are raised in an environment in which it is acceptable or encouraged are more likely to develop a complicated relationship with the substance.
While several personality traits can be associated with alcoholism, there is less weight placed on the concept of addictive personalities in the modern-day. Rather, many people view agreeableness and neuroticism as the most important personality factors. Agreeableness, which is a personality trait that describes a person’s want or ability to put the needs of others before their own, may make you more susceptible to situations of peer pressure.
Neuroticism, on the other hand, is closely tied to disinhibition and impulsivity as it is a trait that determines your disposition to experience negative emotions such as depression, self-consciousness, and emotional instability.
Those who feel the need to be liked or accepted within certain social situations may be more likely to consume higher amounts of alcohol, against their better judgment, because they feel as though it is expected of them or because it is encouraged by those they respect.
While there is still much more for us to learn about this correlation, the most important thing to be aware of is your motivations for drinking, your relationship with drinking, and your awareness of why you are engaging in these behaviors.
3. Personal Choice Factors
Personal Choice factors generally carry the most weight in regards to when and how you decide to begin drinking, with the biggest decision being whether or not you want to participate in drinking alcohol. Over longer periods, this factor does not pose as much of a risk as the other factors on this list.
Personal choice factors also influence the types of situations in which you choose to engage with alcohol including the locations and the people you are with, as well as their expectations surrounding alcohol consumption.
4. Genetic Factors
Genetic Factors are widely considered to be one of the most important factors that influence alcoholism. While the genetic influence is not fully understood currently, some general conclusions have been drawn. For example, we are aware that there is not one single gene that influences someone’s risk for an addictive personality or their chance of developing alcoholism, but rather several genes that work together to produce this outcome.
In regards to what we do understand about the genetics associated with alcoholism, we are aware that biological children of alcoholics are at a significantly increased risk to develop alcoholism, whether or not they are raised around alcohol and current alcoholics or not. This information is shocking because even biological children of alcoholics who are adopted and raised away from alcohol are at a significantly increased risk to develop alcoholism when and if they choose to start drinking alcohol.
On the other hand, biological children of those who do not suffer from alcoholism, even in cases where they may be adopted or raised by alcoholics, are less likely to develop alcoholism.
5. Familial Factors
The impact of familial factors is closely tied to environmental factors. Those who are raised in a family where heavy drinking is normalized, or there is a history of alcohol abuse that has been normalized, are at an increased risk to develop alcoholism.
A significant part of this reasoning is that in families where high alcohol consumption has been normalized, you often have a different understanding of alcohol consumption, acceptable amounts, and acceptable actions or behaviors associated with alcohol than those who do not have frequent interactions with alcohol in the home. If seeing those around you drink heavily is normal to you, you will not necessarily view it as a problem when or if you begin to engage in similar types of behavior.
Additionally, there can be the added stress of familial pressure to engage in drinking large amounts of alcohol on various occasions. If you are raised to view these types of consumption as normal, you may not recognize some of the habits or behaviors as dangerous.
On the other hand, those who are raised in families where alcohol is rarely consumed, consumed only in moderation, or is only consumed on special occasions, may be less likely to drink alcohol in large amounts or regularly. Being raised in a household where you are taught the dangers of high levels of alcohol consumption and not only told but shown the benefits of moderation, you are more likely to develop a healthy relationship with alcohol.
6. Environmental Factors
Environmental factors often have to do with a combination of other factors including familial and cultural – they are heavily dependent on your immediate surroundings and interactions with alcohol. For example, those who grow up in an environment where alcohol is not advertized, glamorized, or is even hard to obtain may have a different perception of it than those in an area where it is heavily advertised, easily obtainable, and even encouraged.
An aspect of environmental factors that are less often discussed relates to income; on average, families or areas that have considerable wealth are more likely to spend money on alcohol and engage in high levels of alcohol consumption whereas low-income families often view alcohol as an unnecessary purchase. This is not, however, a concrete defining factor as it is heavily tied to other factors such as familial and cultural aspects.
7. Religious Factors
Those who participate in religions that have stipulations surrounding drinking, or the lack thereof, either in daily life or regarding specific religious holidays are often less likely to develop alcoholism, especially in cases where they have a strong faith in their religion. The same often applies to cultures, communities, and even countries in which religion plays a significant factor in daily life and belief systems.
Some religions, such as Islam and Mormonism, strictly forbid the consumption of alcohol while others such as Catholicism accept drinking in moderation and religious practices (such as communion), but views an over-indulgence in alcohol as a sin. Depending on your personal beliefs and the beliefs of the community you are in alcohol may be significantly more difficult to obtain which also acts as a deterrent to heavy drinking.
8. Social and Cultural Factors
The social and cultural factors associated with alcoholism also directly impact the availability of treatment and someone’s likelihood to receive treatment.
As mentioned in some of the other aspects above, such as familial and environmental factors, peer pressure and social situations play a large part in the social and cultural aspects that influence drinking. In cultures or social groups where alcohol is encouraged, advertised, easily accessible, and possibly even glamorized, individuals are more likely to develop unhealthy habits with alcohol that lead to alcoholism. Conversely, in cultural groups or societies where alcohol is forbidden, such as in some Muslim or Mormon communities, individuals may have different perceptions surrounding alcohol consumption that make them less likely to develop alcoholism.
Unfortunately, the same seems to be true for treatment options. In places where alcohol is more generally accepted, those who are suffering from alcohol use disorders may have a larger range of easily accessible treatment options, centers, and support to help them on their journey toward society. In the same scenario, it may also take longer for individuals to realize that they are suffering from an alcohol use disorder, dependent on the way high levels of alcohol consumption have been normalized within the culture or social group.
On the other hand, in places where alcohol use is discouraged, those suffering from alcohol use disorders may find it much more difficult to locate a treatment or to admit their concerns to those around them out of fear of being shamed or perceived differently.
In these cases, it is important to remember that anyone, regardless of age or background, can develop alcohol use disorders and is deserving of compassion and access to treatment.
9. Age Factors
In general, the younger someone is when they begin drinking alcohol, especially in cases of underage drinking, the more likely they are to develop a pattern of alcohol abuse later in life.
Many times, alcohol consumption and abuse peaks in the late teens to mid-twenties; in America some of this can be attributed to attitudes such as college parties or partying lifestyles that are glamorized and encouraged during this age range. Peer pressure also plays a large part during this age range as people want to find groups and communities where they feel accepted. While this type of alcohol use and abuse should slow by the time most people are 30, that is not always the case and it can result in lifelong struggles with alcohol.
Much like with personal choice factors, individuals need to think about how their decisions may impact their relationship with alcohol in the long run, rather than in the short term.
10. Educational Factors
There is a correlation between education and alcohol consumption; on average, the more educated someone is, the more likely they are to abuse alcohol. However, there is also significant evidence to suggest that those who dropout of high school early may face an increased risk for alcohol abuse as well.
Some of this may be attributed to the environments surrounding alcohol that are often present in college-aged students and on college campuses. Another thing to take into consideration is the stress of jobs that require college degrees – this aspect may also go hand in hand with the wealth and income aspects mentioned alongside environmental factors, as discussed earlier.
While not always the case, as anyone can develop alcoholism, another aspect to consider is the types of alcohol different groups tend to prefer. Research has shown that generally, college graduates tend to choose alcohol with higher ABV such as liquor or wine, whereas those who have not graduated college tend to prefer beer.
11. Career Factors
There is significant evidence to suggest that high-risk or high-stress or physically demanding careers are more likely to have an influence on the amount someone drinks, and possibly result in alcoholism. Some of the professions with the highest risks for alcoholism include construction workers, miners, doctors, active duty military, lawyers, and food service workers.
It is important to note that due to the long hours, and stressful or potentially dangerous nature of work people in these professions often face there is also an extremely high rate of mental health difficulties. As discussed with psychological factors, some psychological conditions can make you more susceptible to creating an unhealthy or dangerous relationship with alcohol.
Just as with many of the other factors on this list, just because you may be in one of these professions does not mean that you will develop alcoholism. What it does mean, however, is that because high levels of alcohol consumption may be normalized or encouraged to deal with the stressors of the job, you should take extra care to be aware of your perceptions surrounding drinking as well as the specifics of your drinking habits.
What are the Three Major Factors That Influence Underage Drinking?
The three major factors that influence underage drinking are the attitudes of your peers, family, and media portrayal of alcohol consumption.
In general, the younger someone is when they begin drinking, the more likely they are to develop alcoholism later in life. While there are many reasons why someone may begin drinking at a young age, it is rarely done alone and often in the company of friends who are partaking in the same behavior.
Those under the age of 21 who have easy access to alcohol, or have been raised in an environment where alcohol is heavily glamorized or advertised may view it as something acceptable or just a normal activity that all teens and young adults partake in.
Additionally, some may view it as an act of rebellion in cases where alcohol may be discouraged but easy to obtain. In other situations, such as in college environments where binge drinking may be normalized or encouraged, the aspects of peer pressure carry significant weight in whether or not people decide to partake in the activity.
That said, it’s important to talk to teens and young adults about the real risks and dangers associated with alcohol consumption.
How Can You Reduce Your Chances of Becoming an Alcoholic?
Now that we have gone over some of the most important factors that may influence your chance of developing alcoholism, it is important to remember that the decision is up to you to establish a healthy relationship with alcohol and seek help when or if you sense you may be developing a problem with the substance.
While not drinking alcohol is the safest way to avoid your chance of developing alcoholism, it is not the only way to ensure your safety. Some tips for staying at low risk for developing alcoholism are listed below.
- Being aware of what standard drink amounts are, and keeping track of your consumption regularly.
- According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a “standard” drink is the equivalent of 12 ounces of regular beer (5%), 5 ounces of wine (12%), or 1.5 ounces of spirits (40%).
- Make sure to carefully check labels for ABV (Alcohol by Volume).
- Be aware of what is defined as drinking in moderation, binge drinking, and heavy alcohol use:
- Drinking in moderation is commonly defined as one standard drink for women and two standard drinks for men.
- Binge drinking is defined as drinking that brings the BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) to 0.08% or higher. In general, this means 5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more drinks for women in roughly 2 hours.
- Heavy alcohol use is defined as:
- Consuming 4 drinks on any day, or more than 14 drinks per week for men
- Consuming 3 drinks on any day, or more than 7 drinks per week.
- Binge drinking 5 or more days per month.
- Avoid placing yourself in situations where high levels of alcohol consumption are normalized or encouraged such as clubs or bars.
- For every drink of alcohol you have, have an equal amount of soda, water, or juice.
- Eat before or while you are drinking
- If you are going out, try to bring a limited amount of alcoholic drinks or place a limit on how many you will allow yourself to have; you can supplement other beverages with water, juice, or soda.
- Drink slowly
- Be aware of why you are drinking (ie; as a treat for yourself, to de-stress from work, expected of you in a social situation)