Is Addiction Genetic Or Environmental?

We have not always known that addiction is a disease. Research within the last few decades has shown, again and again, that addiction is a disease resulting from substance abuse which affects the brain. When substance abuse advances to addiction, the brain causes a person to compulsively seek substances. This compulsion may lead to little or no regard for other things in a person’s life, such as responsibilities, values, and more. Thus begins the continuous cycle of addiction.

Now that research and modern medicine alike recognize addiction as a disease, another question presents itself: is addiction genetic or environmental? In other words, are people predisposed to addiction, or do they fall victim to addiction because of their surroundings? Because research suggests that addiction is a disease, it is important to know if there are underlying things (such as genes or environmental factors) that can cause it. The answer to these questions is not a simple one, but does give an idea of what may cause addiction, and, perhaps most importantly, ways to prevent and treat it.

What Are Addiction Genes?

Is Addiction Genetic Or Environmental? Genetic MakeupThe Genetic Science Learning Center explains that, “when scientists look for ‘addiction genes,’ what they are really looking for is biological differences that may make someone more or less vulnerable to addiction.” Further, certain genes may make it easier or harder for some people to stop use. But the important thing to remember is that, though some genes may make a person more susceptible to addiction, “someone’s genetic makeup will never doom them to inevitably become an addict.”

The unfortunate thing about the genes which affect substance abuse likelihood is that there is no single trait that determines a person’s vulnerability to addiction. Instead, a person’s chances of being affected are influenced by a number of genetic traits (and environmental factors as well). Addiction is a complex disease, so pinning down any specific genetic traits which impact it may be difficult. In addition, like many genetic traits, not everyone will carry the same addiction traits. Even if a person carries certain traits which make him or her susceptible to addiction, that person will not necessarily fall victim to addiction.

However, Neuroathropology states that, “the bulk of research suggests that drug dependence functions much like other diseases, with certain people having a genetic makeup that increases their risk.” Studies of identical twins, for example, show that some genes which affect addiction vulnerability do affect people more than other genes. Essentially, “if genetic makeup influences the risk for a disease, identical twins… will tend to display concordant behavior; that is, either both will have the disease or neither will develop the disease.” This correlation has proven true in several studies. What part of addiction do genetics affect, then?

Is Addiction Genetic Or Environmental? Twins

An article in the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains that addiction genes can be inherited on a range from moderate to high. Simply stated, the higher the amount of genes which cause vulnerability to addiction, the more a person is susceptible to addiction. Further, an individual’s risk of being affected by addiction, “tends to be proportional to the degree of genetic relationship to an addicted relative.” This is why identical twins will both likely fall victim to addiction if they have the genes, and one of them develops an addiction; they share a genetic makeup. Nonetheless, studies of heritage and shared genetics have found that environmental factors also play a role.

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What Are Addiction Environmental Factors?

Studies which determine people’s vulnerability to addiction measure a number of “addictive agents,” according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. These include:

  • Culture
  • Social policy
  • Religion
  • Economic status
  • Exposure to substances

When studies measure the reactions of certain genes and the effect they have on a person’s tendency towards addiction, the studies are conducted in a controlled environment. For example, twin studies measure twins who are growing up in (usually) the same household, with the same environmental factors, including exposure to substances and other environmental factors.

Is Addiction Genetic Or Environmental? Protective Factors

There are social situations which make a person more at risk for prolonged substance abuse, such as lack of parental involvement or care during childhood, poverty, and troubles with education early on. Protective factors can change the course of these risks for the person affected. But, a person who has both genetic agents present which affect addiction, and is also exposed to an environment which puts him or her at risk for addiction, is more likely to develop addiction than others who do not share the same genetic and environmental risks.

Some of the environmental situations which largely correlate to addiction are triggers, which make it hard for a person to resist the call of substance abuse, such as:

  • A local bar, for those affected by an alcohol addiction.
  • The place or the social settings where a person first abused substances: it may be harder for a person to resist abuse when under these influences.
  • People—friends or family who engage in substance abuse may have both led a person to first use substances, and may contribute to prolonged abuse, making it hard to stop.

What Can You Do To Prevent Addiction?

What is clear here, is that addiction may result from any combination of genetic and environmental factors. People may not necessarily be affected by addiction if they have many genetic traits which makes them susceptible, or if they grew up in a substance-heavy environment filled with social factors that predispose them to substance abuse—but they are more likely to in that situation. Likewise, people could have very few genetic traits which dispose them to substance abuse, grow up in an environment far from addiction, and still develop an addiction. There is no single cause of addiction.

What can be done in the face of such troubling facts is prevention. Prevention can begin early; in fact, it is important to have protective factors in place early on to better ensure a person’s defense against addiction. For example, making sure that children grow up in a stable environment, free from substance abuse, with access to necessary education is a great preventative method.

For those who have fallen victim to addiction there may also be hope. The more people recognize that addiction is a disease which requires adequate treatment, the better chance people have at properly treating it. Treatment is available in many forms, through many methods.

Inpatient drug treatment allows a person to recover in a facility with professional or medical assistance if needed. Outpatient therapy may provide access to these things on a limited basis, however, it will offer counseling for continued care. Medications help people with the harrowing withdrawal process, or may help people wean off certain potent substances without the high risk of dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Treatment is no easy process, but is available to those who need it.

How Can You Get Help For Substance Abuse?

Did you grow up in the presence of substance abuse? Or do you have a family member close to you who struggled with addiction? Whether you have been affected genetically or environmentally, you can get help for substance abuse and addiction. Contact us today at to find out how we can help you on the road to recovery.

American Society Of Addiction Medicine—Definition Of Addiction
Genetic Science Learning Center—Genes And Addiction
Neuroanthropology—The Genetic And Environmental Bases Of Addiction
U.S. National Library of Medicine—Genes And Addictions