Addiction is called a “family disease” because it not only affects the whole family when a member has a substance use disorder but also because there’s a hereditary link that can be passed down. An important aspect of understanding addiction as a disease is seeing how biological and environmental factors can impact addiction. Those who have a family history of addiction should pay particularly close attention to potential risks that may cause them to be more susceptible to substance use disorders. Using science-backed information can help get rid of the stigma surrounding addiction and encourage those who need help to seek it out without feeling ashamed or afraid.
Genetics and Addiction
Genes are units of DNA that make up the entire human body and DNA provides people with information about what the cells in our bodies are doing. Everyone has a unique set of DNA, which is inherited from their parents giving them traits like hair and eye color, height, and not-so-visible things like risk or protections from diseases like diabetes, auto-immune disorders, and more. Scientists have found that when gene mutations occur, it can pose a potential risk of health problems in the future. One of the diseases that have been extensively studied by researchers is addiction. It’s a complex disease and, genetically speaking, can impact different people in different ways. However, people who have addiction in their family history are not destined to have substance use disorders. Their fate is not sealed in their genetic disposition. Studies are being conducted to find new treatment approaches using new and emerging information that is being discovered while unraveling and studying where addiction fits within the human genome. The human genome is the full set of chromosomes in the human body which include all the inheritable traits of an organism.
There will never be just one isolated addiction gene that is passed down from parents to offspring. Instead, addiction should be seen and treated as a vulnerability of complex traits. There are arrays of genes that make up the proneness to addiction, and not everyone with a substance use disorder will have the same variations of genes that carry an addiction risk. Some may end up with this gene arrangement and show no signs of being prone to addiction. Regardless of how complicated the concept of addiction and genetics may be, thorough research has determined there is a link and that addiction is influenced by genes.
Another reason why stigma surrounding addiction is so dangerous is the fact that many people never talk about substance use disorders in the family due to shame or fear. Most everyone would want to know if their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents had a specific disease. In fact, when at the doctor, most people are asked to disclose any family history of illness. Considering addiction is a disease, it’s irresponsible to not disclose these health issues with family. Unfortunately, many people are never made aware that someone in their lineage actually has issues with addiction because they are often kept secret of swept under the rug.
However, genetics only account for about 50% of the probability that the offspring of someone with a substance use disorder will develop an addiction. The other factors that can impact children of people with substance use disorders are also environmental. Poor coping skills can lead people to self-medicate with substances. Poor mental health care is also a major factor that can lead to drug misuse and potential addiction. Something parents can do for their children to prevent the “addiction gene” from negatively impacting them is helping them learn to deal with stress, emotions, and hard times. Teaching them to ask for and seek help instead of adapting self-destructive habits is crucial in early development. When a child is exposed to parents who misuse drugs or exhibit poor coping skills, they are more likely to learn and mimic this behavior.
Once substance use disorders are taken more seriously, and addiction is seen as a disease, families will be better equipped to deal with family members who need help in the future. Adhering to outdated belief systems that view addiction as a character flaw or a problem of the weak-willed will only continue to allow the addiction epidemic to spread. Children deserve transparency from their parents about potential genetic predispositions to addiction they may have so they can be more aware of it as they grow into adults.
Since addiction may present itself in someone with a combination of genetic and environmental factors combined, it’s best to take preventative precautions early on. Raising children in stable, drug-free environments where they are not exposed to substance misuse or very stressful situations is the ideal way to protect them. The reality is, not every child will have this kind of environment growing up, and they may have a parent or a family member who struggles with addiction. Since addiction can affect the family as a whole, these children are more at risk. There is hope, however, for these children and their parents as well.
Along with treatment, scientists and genetic researchers are looking to develop improved ways to help people who are impacted by addiction. Each “addiction gene” they can identify becomes a “drug target” that researchers focus on to develop a medicine that can counteract or modify its activity. This will be an advanced way to help stabilize and improve proper brain function in those who are at a particularly high risk both genetically and environmentally.
The future of treatment will be enhanced with further genetic research. Soon, people with addiction will be able to be tested to see which medications may be best for their treatment. This is why understanding the role of genetics in addiction is so important. While addiction is a very complex and complicated disease, science and research will be able to help us understand how to handle substance use disorders and treat them more effectively.
by Holly Holloway