In The Know Zone


Definition and Symptoms of Alcoholism

Binge drinking is not the same as alcoholism. However, someone who is a binge drinker does have a greater risk of becoming an alcoholic.

Alcoholism is simply defined as a dependence on alcohol. It is a disease that becomes worse over time. Alcoholics experience intense cravings for alcohol. They continue to drink even when they experience alcohol-related problems, such as trouble in school, losing a job, or getting into trouble with the law.

  • Approximately 15% of all drinkers, or 1 in 7, will develop an alcohol abuse or dependence ("alcoholism") problem.
  • Youth who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21. More than 43% of teenagers who began drinking before age 14 later became alcoholics.
  • Alcoholism affects more people than diabetes, lung cancer, breast cancer, or heart attacks, and is about as common as hypertension (high blood pressure.)

There are four basic symptoms of alcoholism. These symptoms may occur in a drinker’s life in a different order than they are listed here. First is Craving, the strong need, or compulsion, to drink. Second is Impaired Control, this is the drinker’s inability to limit his or her own drinking on any given occasion. The third symptom is Physical Dependence, This means that when alcohol use is stopped, even briefly, after a period of heavy drinking, the drinker experiences withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms include nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety. The fourth symptom of alcoholism is Tolerance, the need for increasing amounts of alcohol in order to feel its effects.

Alcoholism causes permanent changes in the brain, leading to physical discomfort when an alcohol goes without drinking.

Genetic Component

Alcoholism can happen to anyone. People from non-drinking families can and do become dependent on alcohol.

However, alcoholism can run in families. People with alcoholic parents may have some genetic factors that make it more likely for them to become alcoholic also.

Some environmental factors, like family alcoholism, extreme stress, and availability of alcohol, make alcoholism more likely.

Whether alcoholism is influenced more by genes or by environment is still an open question, however. Researchers have suggested different ideas of what causes a family history of alcoholism. It seems likely that alcoholism is caused by a wide variety of factors. Additional studies are needed to discover how much genes and environment influence the disease. It is probable that environmental influences are at least as important, and possibly more important, than genetic influences.

It appears that what most children of alcoholics inherit is a greater vulnerability to alcoholism, not the disease itself. Continuing research in this area should help define the potential for alcoholism in high-risk individuals and to help those people at an early stage. Finally, genetic research may help scientists develop new treatments for alcohol-related problems.

Again, none of this means that all children of alcoholics will become alcoholics or that children of non-alcoholics are safe from the disease. All it means is that children of alcoholics have an increased vulnerability or risk of developing the disease.

Twin Studies

Various scientists have studied groups of twins to try to determine the genetic component of alcoholism. Identical twins share identical genetic make-ups, while fraternal twins are no more similar genetically than other siblings. In one study, 169 same-sex pairs of twins, both males and females, were studied. At least one person in each twin pair had sought treatment for alcoholism. The researchers found greater similarity in levels of alcohol dependence in identical twins than in fraternal twins. They also found greater similarity in levels of alcohol abuse (which is "problem" drinking, but not "alcoholism," per se) in identical male twins but not in identical female twins. In another famous study of 902 male Finnish twins, researchers found that individuals were less likely to inherit more moderate drinking patterns, but more likely to inherit more severe drinking patterns.

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