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Family Matters: the Genetic Nature of Addiction

addiction genetics

Just over three years ago, the legendary powerhouse Whitney Houston was found unresponsive in the bathtub of her Beverly Hills hotel. It was later determined that a significantly high amount of cocaine flooded her system at the time of her death. 

Just under three months ago, Bobbi Kristina Brown, Houston’s only heir, was discovered in a situation that chillingly mirrored that of her mother’s: She was found face-down in the bathtub of her Georgia home, unresponsive—yet alive. She was hospitalized and immediately induced into a coma, a nightmare she has yet to wake from.

It is no secret that Bobbi Kristina Brown regularly abused cocaine, heroine, and Xanax in the preceding months before her tragic accident. She had been in and out of drug rehabs since her mother’s fatal overdose. Just as Houston struggled with cocaine, Bobbi’s father wrestled with alcoholism, making it appear nearly inevitable that young Bobbi Kristina Brown have the same fate: a life succumbed by addiction. 

Addiction is a chronic brain disease that currently inhabits an estimated 22 million people across the United States. If you have lived through the addiction of a loved one, a family member, or have even battled it yourself, you understand the magnitude of this disease. Your children, on the other hand, may not be so familiar with the potency of substance addiction. They may not know of the struggle that their aunt, their cousin, or their father, once faced. Unaware of their family history, they may not be taking drug and alcohol use as seriously as they should. 

It can be difficult to fully understand the factors that feed an addiction, that make it grow within an individual. How can one person be so vulnerable, while another is less at risk, to drug use? Are some people more prone to drug addiction than others? Is the propensity for addiction embedded into our bodies long before we even use a drug? 

The answer is yes. Research has actually shown that 40-60 percent of one’s predisposition to addiction can be attributed to genetics. And like addiction, a person’s genes are extremely complex. Genes provide us with information that directs how our bodies should respond at a cellular level. But no single gene that we are born with, or that we pass down, makes an “addict.” 
While some diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, are caused by an error in a single gene, the disease of addiction involves a multiplicity of genes. It is the variations of these genes together that contribute to an individual’s level of risk or resistance to addiction. 

Focusing on tobacco addiction, studies have found that genetics account for about 75 percent of a person’s inclination to begin smoking regularly. Genes make up for 60 percent of a person’s tendency to become addicted. They also compose about 54 percent of one’s ability to quit. 

Children of alcoholics have been found two to four times more likely than other children to become addicted to alcohol themselves. And while some may immediately blame a poor environment for this statistic, more studies have proven that genetics are in fact a major component in addiction: In adoption studies recorded by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, sons of alcoholics were found to be four times as likely to be alcoholics than sons of non-alcoholics, even when adopted into new homes.

While we may want to see Bobbi Kristina’s tragedy as another Hollywood addiction story, the fact remains that drug tendencies are undoubtedly hereditary. Her celebrity environment, though, could have nurtured a biological discrepancy. Research has constantly shown us that it is truly a combination of factors that feed substance addiction: inherited genetic vulnerability, poor role modeling, high stress of instability in the home, and poor family communication are just a few.
It is important to note that the initiation of drug or alcohol use is voluntary—one makes a choice to experiment. This choice may be influenced by an individual’s emotional state, by his peers, family, or simply by the availability of the drug. Once the choice is made and the drug is taken, he immediately becomes susceptible to addiction. We cannot see it, we cannot necessarily predict it, and there is no perfect strategy to prevent it. However, we can watch out for it. If someone you love has come face-to-face with addiction, you can help him by encouraging treatment and counseling. By helping him build a support network, you can help him foster a sober lifestyle and further avoid drug abuse. 

The Houston-Brown overdose tragedy is just one of many examples we’ve seen spread across the media, showing how drug abuse can truly bring an entire family down. Renowned actor and Ironman, Robert Downey Jr., saw himself in a similar situation. Downey spent years battling addiction before seeking recovery and getting clean. When his son, Indio, was arrested last year for cocaine possession, the actor recognized, “Unfortunately there’s a genetic component to addiction and Indio has likely inherited it.” 

If you know that addiction exists somewhere in your family history, there remains a possibility that it exists somewhere within you or your children. This is not something that you should be ashamed of, and it is something that shouldn’t be kept in the dark. Talk about your family history with your child. Explain that there are risks to drug and alcohol use. Use your history as a lesson, to take proper precautions. Knowing that your family is at increased risk for alcohol or drug abuse can help you recognize signs of addiction early on, and get the help that they deserve.