A joint Norwegian-American report claims that 71 percent of alcoholics have inherited the condition genetically, a far higher total than expected or previously put forward.
The results of the project, which comes from cooperation between Virginia Commonwealth University and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, contradict previous findings that suggested genetic causes lay behind half of cases. The study, carried out in Virginia, conducted two intervals with a year’s gap between them of 4,203 identical and non-identical white male twins aged 18 to 56.
Based on the research, it is believed that some genes involved in inheriting alcoholism control how the body breaks down alcohol, while others deal more generally with people’s predisposition to addictive behaviour.
One of those involved in the report, Eivind Ystrøm, described the study as “ground-breaking” when talking to newspaper Aftenposten, adding that the use of twins and the undertaking of interviews with a year’s gap meant that “the inaccuracies are minimized.” Ystrøm said that the risk of becoming an alcoholic would be large for the child of two alcoholics. He advised those who had a number of alcoholics as near relatives “not to hide away” from the issue. “If one is genetically predisposed, they should probably be more conscious of their own alcohol consumption, and ask themselves the question whether they are always drunk at parties and often cannot manage to stop drinking,” he commented. “Exercising caution isn’t going to hurt.”
The researcher believes that society must now take greater responsibility for alcoholism as an inherited condition. “Accessibility and social acceptance can influence and moderate whether the genes are expressed,” he said, comparing this to instances where other genetic conditions have been treated and “the environment moderates the genetic vulnerability.” However, he emphasized that this would not completely do away with the vulnerability, which lasts for the whole of someone’s life, “because other causal factors can come forward” that one “is not safeguarded against.” The fact that it lasts throughout someone’s life means that moderation policies targeted at younger people, such as higher age limits, do not always work. Ystrøm said that “the Norwegian model fits better” than the American system because of its use of “wine monopolies” and high prices to control access. “You cannot get hold of a bottle of vodka at a petrol station here,” he said.
Nevertheless, Ystrøm said that Norway, where alcohol consumption continues to rise, could improve through increasing prices yet further to match incomes. He hopes clinics will use information about family background to assess the reasons why a person might keep relapsing despite the removal of key environmental factors.
Help ‘without treatment’
Paal-Andre Grinderud, meanwhile, thinks that people will now have to accept that some alcoholics cannot be cured of the condition. Grinderud set up the Wanda Center – where children can stay if life at home is made difficult through alcoholism – after experiencing problem with alcoholism among family members during childhood. He has also written a number of books about his experience and been an active part of the public debate around the issue. “There are people that are treated for many years, but where this doesn’t help,” he told Aftenposten. “I hope the study will get the authorities and the treatment apparatus to realize that for certain people, the most appropriate thing to do is to give them dignity, care and help so that they can get the best out of their lives, without giving treatment.”
Grinderud is himself a non-identical twin – his twin sister became an alcoholic, following in their mother’s footsteps as well as other family members, despite the fact that he spent more time around his mother than his sister. Grinderud said it was a “relief” to hear the news of the study as he has “been scared that one day I would break down and hit the bottle myself,” adding that “if we had been identical twins, I believe I too would have been an alcoholic.” He also believes it explains why it has been so hard to treat his sister, whom he can now “love in a different way, not with anger, but with kindness.”
Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher
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