Alcoholism Causes & Risk Factors 

Alcohol addiction is a condition that can have wide-ranging consequences for the individual struggling with it, their loved ones, and society as a whole. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol addiction is a chronic, progressive disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over drinking and a negative emotional state when not drinking (such as anxiety, irritability, and restlessness).1

AUD can lead to a number of health problems, including liver damage, heart disease, cancer, stroke and mental health problems. It can also cause social issues in the struggling individual’s life, such as relationship difficulties, job loss, financial problems, and legal troubles. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, there are a number of resources available to help. The first step is to reach out for help.1

While anyone can develop an alcohol addiction, there are certain risk factors that may make someone more vulnerable to this disease. Factors that can contribute to alcohol addiction include genetic predisposition, mental health issues and sociocultural influences.2

What Causes Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a very complex disease that has a variety of causes. The condition can be caused by a combination of factors in one individual or by a single dominant factor in another. Even though the causes can significantly vary from one struggling individual to another, there are some common factors that may contribute to addiction in a large number of individuals.3,4

Some of the most common factors that may be causes of alcoholism include:2

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Physiological factors
  • Age
  • Personality
  • Personal drinking history
  • Family background and influence
  • Religion
  • Education
  • Career reasons
  • Social and cultural influences
  • Chronic stress
  • Mental health conditions

While any one of these factors may not be sufficient to cause AUD on its own, the combination of several of these factors can increase the risk for developing the condition. It’s important to be aware of the factors in order to increase the chances of preventing the development of the condition in individuals who are at risk.2

Genetics Factor

Studies have shown that alcohol addiction disorder runs in families and that people with a family history of alcoholism are more likely to develop the disorder themselves. There are several theories as to why this is the case, but one leading explanation is that people who are genetically predisposed to alcoholism are more likely to experience changes in brain chemistry that make them crave alcohol.2,5

This theory is supported by the fact that people with alcoholism often report feeling an intense need to drink, even when doing so causes them harm. It is clear that genetic predisposition is a major factor in alcohol addiction disorder, and this knowledge can help to inform treatment and prevention efforts.2 

For example, one study shows that sons of male alcoholics are at a significantly higher risk of developing AUD themselves at some point in their lives. A significant number of the participants in the study have displayed observable behavioral, cognitive, and psychophysiological abnormalities while sober and are more sensitive to the sedative effects of alcohol compared to men whose parents didn’t suffer from AUD.6

What are the Psychological Causes of Alcoholism?  

Although there are many factors that contribute to alcoholism, it is generally believed that the disease has its roots in psychological factors. One of the common ones is a propensity toward impulsive behavior. Individuals with impulsive tendencies may have more prominent urges towards risky behavior and a lower ability to control them.3

Another possible common factor is low-self esteem. Individuals with low self-esteem may use alcohol as a way to numb their feelings of insecurity and inadequacy and feel more confident. Finally, mental health conditions and/or a history of trauma may be common factors. Individuals suffering from mental health conditions, especially depression and anxiety, may use alcohol as a way to self-medicate and numb the difficult symptoms of their condition.3

Age Factor

Age can be a major factor in the development of alcohol addiction. Studies have shown that people who start drinking at an early age are more likely to develop an addiction than those who start drinking later in life.7

This is because the brain is still developing during adolescence and is more susceptible to the harmful effects of alcohol. In addition, young people are more likely to engage in risky drinking behavior, such as binge drinking, which can lead to addiction.7

Adolescents may have different motivations for drinking. One study from 2005 found that the dominant motivations were social in nature, but using alcohol to enhance their experience or to cope with negative emotions was also significantly common.8

Personality Factors

Different personality factors may also play a role in the development of an AUD. While it’s certain that not everyone with these personality traits will struggle with an AUD, these individuals may be more vulnerable to developing a problem with alcohol.2

One factor may be shyness. People who are shy or have some form of social anxiety may be more likely to turn to alcohol as a way of easing their nervousness and making them feel more comfortable in social situations.2

Another personality factor that may contribute to developing an alcohol addiction is a desire to be accepted by others. This can lead people to drink excessively in order to fit in or be liked by others.2

Finally, some individuals, especially at a younger age, may prioritize fun over all else and may view alcohol as a means to an end. They may not be concerned about the negative consequences of their drinking as long as they are having a good time.2

Family Factor

Family history is thought to be one of the most important factors in the development of an AUD. Studies have shown that people with a family history of alcoholism are more likely than those without a family history to develop an alcohol addiction themselves. This may be due in part to genetic factors, but it may also be hypothesized that growing up in an environment where alcohol is abused can normalize drinking behaviors and make it more difficult to resist the temptation to abuse alcohol oneself.2,5

Drinking History

How early a person started to drink, how often they consume alcohol and in what quantity can all be factored in the development of an AUD. Drinking alcohol changes an individual’s brain chemistry over time, increasing their tolerance and affecting their neural pathways. Alcohol consumption increases the levels of dopamine in the brain, which leads to feelings of pleasure and relaxation.9,10,11

Over time, the brain becomes accustomed to these higher dopamine levels, requiring more and more alcohol to achieve the same effect. This tolerance can lead to dependence and addiction. Additionally, chronic drinking alters the structure of the brain, affecting the way neurons communicate with each other. This can lead to changes in mood, behavior, and cognition.9,10,11

Stressful Environments

Studies have shown that people who spend a lot of time in stressful environments are more likely to turn to alcohol as a way of coping. This is because alcohol acts as a depressant, numbing the senses and providing temporary relief from the pressures of daily life.12,13

However, this relief is only temporary, and over time, the body builds up a tolerance to alcohol. As a result, people who drink to cope with stress end up drinking more and more, eventually developing an addiction.12,13

Social and Cultural Factors

Society, culture and alcohol have always been intertwined. For many individuals, regardless of their nationality, alcohol may be intertwined with important traditions and rituals. In many cultures, alcohol is consumed on a regular basis as part of religious ceremonies or social gatherings.14

For these individuals, abstaining from alcohol can be difficult and may lead to feelings of isolation or exclusion. In addition to this, drinking alcohol is often seen as a sign of adulthood or maturity, and peer pressure can also play a role in encouraging people to drink.14

Mental Health Disorders and Trauma

Another important common factor for the development of alcohol addiction are mental health disorders. Mental health conditions can manifest in a number of ways, all of which can lead to increased stress levels and make it more difficult to cope with day-to-day life.16

For people who already have difficulty managing their emotions, turning to alcohol as a way to cope can quickly lead to dependency, creating two co-occurring disorders. In addition, mental health disorders can also lead to social isolation and decreased motivation, both of which may make it more likely for the struggling individual to start drinking more heavily.16

Trauma can also play a role in the development of alcoholism. People who have experienced trauma often turn to alcohol as a way to numb the pain and memories associated with the event. However, this can lead to further problems down the road.17

What are the Risk Factors of Alcoholism?

Risk factors are factors that may increase the chances of an individual developing an AUD. These factors include:3,4

  • Genetic predisposition and family background: Individuals who grew up in families where a family member was suffering from AUD may be more likely to develop a genetic and psychological predisposition to the disorder.
  • Age and personality: Young individuals and individuals with certain character traits such as impulsivity or shyness may be more prone to developing AUD.
  • Mental health conditions and trauma: Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety or a history of trauma or abuse may significantly increase the chances of a person developing AUD.
  • Everyday environment: The amount of stress that an individual experiences in their day-to-day life, whether in the workplace or at home, may impact the possibility of developing an alcohol addiction.
  • High-stress occupation: Individuals in high-stress or physically or mentally demanding occupations may be more prone to drinking as a way to cope with the stress and pressure of the workplace.
  • Social and cultural influences: Individuals who are part of a culture that encourages alcohol during religious ceremonies, celebrations and social gatherings may be more prone to developing AUD.

It’s evident that most of the factors for the development of AUD are the causes of the disorder as well. There is a direct connection between the factors and the causes. Once the factors start to noticeably affect the struggling individual’s life, there may be a higher chance of the same factors causing the disorder to develop.3,4

How do Alcoholism Risk Factors Influence Treatment and Relapse  

Given the seriousness of AUD, it is important to understand and acknowledge the factors that contribute to its development during treatment. Some causes, such as genetics and family history, may be out of anyone’s control.2,3

However, others, like stress and depression, may be managed with proper treatment. This is why it is so important to seek out comprehensive treatment that addresses all of the underlying causes of the disease. A treatment program that addresses the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of alcoholism has a higher likelihood to increase the patient’s chances of recovery.2,3

American Addiction Centers are a trustworthy network of rehabilitation centers in the USA. If you or your loved one are considering getting help for AUD, you may reach out to the center’s helpline and get information about the recovery programs.

Frequently Asked Questions