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If alcoholism runs in my family, am I at greater risk?

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The question

If alcoholism runs in my family, am I at greater risk?

The answer

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Just as with other diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, alcoholism can also run in families, so you are at higher risk. Alcoholism is a disease that occurs when your body becomes dependent on alcohol. People who suffer from alcoholism often have a loss of control over their ability to limit the amount they drink, can have severe and often uncontrollable cravings for alcohol, and may have physical symptoms of withdrawal when they stop drinking. The loss of control and amount of drinking can have severe consequences on health, relationships, work life, finances and for some lead to legal problems.

Alcoholism is believed to be caused by both genetic and environmental influences. Studies done on children where one or both parents are alcoholic have shown that they have a 4-8 times higher risk of alcoholism when compared to those with no parental history of alcoholism. A study done in Denmark that followed over 7,000 people demonstrated a strong correlation between parental alcoholism and alcohol abuse in their children that was independent of gender, social status and parental psychiatric illness.

While these studies support that there is a strong hereditary influence in the development of alcoholism, we also have to consider external factors that may be involved as we are products not only of our genetic makeup but also of our environment. Supportive environments seem to protect against alcohol dependence even in those with a family history of alcoholism while environments with poor child-parent relationships can compound this risk.

Similar to preventing other diseases, if you know you have a higher risk for alcoholism due to family history, you can take steps by being aware and making some changes to decrease your risk such as:

1. Avoid underage drinking: Early drinking before legal age limits is correlated with a higher risk of dependence

2. Drink in moderation, but if you can't control the amount, abstain from alcohol. The new safe drinking guidelines recently released by National Alcohol Strategy Advisory Committee recommend no more than two drinks a day, five times a week or 10 drinks total a week for women and no more than three drinks a day, five times a week or 15 drinks total a week for men. If it's difficult to drink within these limits, especially with a family history of alcoholism, it would be prudent to abstain completely.

3. Seek help early: If you are noticing that drinking is becoming a problem, there are a number of resources available in most communities. Al-anon is one such organization that supports family members of alcoholics. Being open with your doctor about your concern of your family history of alcoholism can also help them to be alert to this potential risk and help them to monitor and offer support as needed.

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The bottom line: Just because there is a predisposition to alcoholism due to family history, it does not mean that it will automatically happen. It does mean however to use caution, monitor your alcohol consumption and seek help early if you need.

Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at doctor@globeandmail.com.

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