ScienceDaily (Apr. 24, 2008) — The influence of genetics increases as young women transition from taking their first drink to becoming alcoholics. A team of researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that although environment is most influential in determining when girls begin to drink, genes play a larger role if they advance to problem drinking and alcohol dependence.
The researchers studied 3,546 female twins ages 18 to 29 to ferret out the influences of genes and environment in the development of alcohol dependence.
The road to alcohol dependence involves transitions through many stages of drinking behaviors: from the first drink to the first alcohol-related problems (such as drinking and driving, difficulty at school or work related to alcohol use) to alcohol dependence.
Environmental factors the twins shared, such as exposure to conflict between parents or alcohol use among peers in school, exerted the largest influence on initiation of alcohol use. The study found that females who had their first drink at an earlier age were more likely to develop serious alcohol problems. The researchers found that all transitions were attributable in part to genetic factors, increasing from 30 percent for the timing of first drink to 47 percent for the speed at which women progressed from problem drinking to alcohol dependence. But genetics did not explain everything.
"Even when genetic factors are most influential, they account for less than half of the influence on drinking behavior," says lead author Carolyn E. Sartor, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Medicine. "That's good news in terms of modifying these behaviors and reducing the risk of developing alcohol dependence. Genetics are not destiny, and our findings suggest that there are opportunities to intervene at all stages of alcohol use."