Health Beat: Designed to drink? The genetics of alcohol addiction

Health Beat: The genetics of alcohol addiction

CENTER CITY, Minn. - There are many people who drink alcohol and never become addicted. But others, despite the destructive consequences, can't stop.

If you looked at Amy Shields-Olson's family photos, you wouldn't know that addiction nearly destroyed her world.

"I was writing suicide notes to my children. I would have blackouts, where I wouldn't remember if I fed them dinner," said Amy Shields-Olson, a recovering alcoholic.

Shields-Olson became an alcoholic, largely because she said she couldn't escape her genes. Dr. Marvin Seppala said genetics is the number one risk factor for addiction.

"Over 50 percent of the likelihood that a person is going to end up with addiction has to do with their genetic history," said Seppala, of the Hazelden Foundation.

If your mom or dad is an alcoholic, then your risk skyrockets. Then you are "at least six times more likely than the general population", to being an alcoholic yourself, Seppala explained.

Then there's age. Studies show people who start drinking before 15 are five times more likely to become addicted than those who begin drinking after they turn 21.

Another risk factor – tolerance – especially when people first use alcohol.

"It's the people who can really tolerate the alcohol that have the genetic predisposition and end up at higher risk," Seppala said.

There are also protective genes that exist mostly in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people who get flushed when they drink.

"And that actually will prevent alcohol use, because they don't like how it feels," Seppala explained.

Shields-Olson is now an addiction counselor. She hopes to pass down the knowledge she's learned to her kids, giving them the power to break the cycle.

"Everything I have in life today is a result of making the decision to say I need help," Shields-Olson said.

There are more than 300 genes associated with alcoholism. Variations in the different genes contribute to a person's overall level of risk or resistance.

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