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Alcohol Use & Other Risk Factors

As with almost all medical conditions, alcoholism does not occur in a vacuum – that is, it is almost always accompanied by disorders and behaviors that may have led to (or been exacerbated by) alcohol abuse.

According to a document produced and distributed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), primary care physicians who are treating alcoholic patients should address the likelihood of additional risk factors. To accomplish this goal, Dr. Richard Saitz (writing in the Dec. 3, 2004 research summary) advised physicians to employ the following policies and practices

  • Brief behavioral counseling (including the “Five A’s – assess, advise, agree on goals, assist in developing a plan, and arrange a follow-up consultation)
  • System supports such as computer-guided decision making tools
  • Staff training on screening for and addressing multiple risk factors
  • Employment of multi-disciplinary teams led by nurses

The NIAAA article, which was entitled “Addressing Risky Alcohol Use with Other Behavioral Risk Factors,” declared that brief counseling was an effective means of addressing factors such as alcohol abuse and smoking, but its ability to identify multiple factors had yet to be established.
The factors that may increase the likelihood that a person will become an alcoholic can be grouped into the following five categories:

  • Genetic – The influence of genetics remains unclear, but researchers have noted that factors including a higher tolerance for alcohol, a craving for alcohol, and a predilection for becoming addicted to alcohol can be passed from parents to children via DNA.
  • Biological – Studies of the effects of alcohol on members of various ethnic groups have discovered that some may be biologically predisposed to drink less, while others are at increased risk for developing alcoholism. For example, according to an article on the website of the Mental Health Channel, many members of some Asian population lack a liver enzyme that breaks down alcohol, resulting in an unpleasant experience in those who drink (and thus a likelihood that these individuals will drink less).
  • Environmental – Children who are raised by parents who habitually drink alcohol may be more likely to engage in this behavior than were children who are raised in alcohol-free homes. Other environmental influences can include the behaviors of peers, siblings, and other family members.
  • Psychological – Individuals who received little parental support – or who were abused, neglected, or exposed to recurring incidents of domestic violence – may experience impaired psychological development or develop ineffective coping skills. These psychological and emotional setbacks may leave them vulnerable to alcohol abuse.
  • Socio-cultural – The degree to which the greater society accepts or rejects the use of alcohol may have a strong influence on the likelihood that an individual member of that society or cultural group will experiment with, misuse, or abuse alcohol.

No one factor guarantees that a person will develop alcoholism, but the presence of multiple risk factors is a matter that merits continued attention. By monitoring these influences and developing strategies to offset their impact, even individuals who are at the highest risk of succumbing to alcoholism can pursue lives that are free from the shackles of this debilitating disease.

Index of Addiction Articles

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