Alcoholism Causes & Common Risk Factors

Alcoholism: Causes

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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Alcoholism: Learn the Causes and Common Risk Factors

Not everyone who drinks consumes alcohol excessively, but alcoholism has the potential to impact anyone at some point throughout their lives. Also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the medical community, this disease doesn’t discriminate. Regardless of body type, nationality, gender, or age, anyone can fall prey to alcoholism, but help is available. Knowing the causes and risk factors of alcoholism can help you determine whether you or someone you care about needs professional intervention.

What Is Alcoholism?

Before delving into the causes and risk factors, it’s essential to know what alcohol use disorder actually is. Generally speaking, many people might define it as drinking too much, but that definition can be very subjective and applied to many different cases. Alcoholism is the most serious kind of problem drinking, and it means that someone is drinking so much that their consumption is harming their health. Those dealing with alcoholism often have such a strong desire to drink that they are unable to control the urge. 

Alternate names for alcoholism include alcohol dependence, alcohol misuse, and alcohol addiction. This kind of alcohol use disorder is different from harmful or heavy drinking that can have negative health consequences but doesn’t feature the dependence angle. Someone who battles with alcoholism usually prioritizes drinking over most life activities, including family and work obligations. They also build a tolerance over time, which means they need to drink more to get inebriated. In addition, when they stop drinking, they experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

Causes of Alcoholism

Knowing the possible causes of alcoholism is crucial to understanding AUD and providing appropriate treatment. There may be a single cause, but many people who start drinking too much do so for multiple, complex reasons. 

In all cases of alcoholism, individuals have an impaired ability to control or stop their alcohol use, even in the face of health, social, and occupational consequences. Alcoholism is sometimes classified as a brain disorder, and it can be severe, moderate, or mild. Alcohol misuse results in lasting changes in brain tissue and chemistry that worsen over time.

Here are a few of the primary factors that contribute to alcohol use disorder.

Drinking Starts at an Early Age

The legal drinking age in the United States is 21, but underage drinking occurs frequently. Young teenagers and even pre-teens are known to experiment with alcohol on occasion, and thousands of people under the legal drinking age lose their lives each year. While rates of alcohol use among high schoolers have gone down over the last few decades, binge drinking still happens within this age group. Those who start drinking alcohol before the legal age are at higher risk of developing alcoholism, and it’s even worse when binge drinking is involved.

Persistent Drinking Over Time

The physical effects of alcohol kick in within seconds of starting one drink, but they also grow exponentially as a person continues to use alcohol over time. Alcohol mimics certain chemicals that the brain produces and relies on for proper functioning, and enough alcohol renders the brain dependent on alcoholic beverages to continue to produce those chemicals. Alcoholism and the dependence it causes develop over time. Gradually, a person needs more and more alcohol to maintain proper neural function and biochemistry.


Alcohol and depression often go hand in hand. However, depression frequently precedes alcoholism. Those suffering from mental health disorders commonly turn to alcohol to feel better. Unfortunately, drinking typically makes depression worse. Individuals who suffer from depression and drink excessively have more depressive episodes, and those episodes tend to be more severe. Heavy alcohol consumption also reduces the effectiveness of antidepressants while increasing suicidal thoughts.


Someone with a history of trauma is at an increased risk of developing alcoholism later in life, whether the trauma is emotional, physical, or both. Childhood trauma is notably present in adults with alcoholism, and a personal history of emotional, sexual, or physical abuse can result in future alcohol dependence. Adults with alcoholism usually have at least one kind of childhood trauma, but some have two or even three. A history of suffering emotional abuse doesn’t always lead directly to alcoholism, but resulting post-traumatic stress disorder or depression could.

Social and Cultural Factors

Getting together with friends, family, or just a drinking partner can represent the social and cultural factors that might result in alcoholism. Drinking too much is often presented in a glamorous manner in the media, and drinking is a social activity for many people. Alcohol’s role in human history dates back thousands of years and might have spurred the development of agriculture as a means of creating more beer. How much alcohol someone drinks is a matter of self-control, but inhibitions loosen with the consumption of alcohol. This substance is present in nearly every culture throughout history, and attempts at prohibition rarely work outside of highly religious societies.

Genetics and Family History

Depending on a person’s background, their genetics and family history might contribute to their alcoholism. Anyone with a parent or close relative who has had issues with alcohol has a higher risk of alcohol use disorder. Genetic factors have been demonstrated in twins, and research has highlighted similar findings in those who have parents with alcoholism. Genes aren’t the only explanation, however. Individuals raised by alcoholics might have emotional and behavioral complications that can also lead to alcoholism.

Bariatric Surgery

One potentially surprising source of alcoholism is bariatric surgery. Someone battling obesity might dramatically improve their physical health with this surgery, and it is proven effective in many cases in dealing with weight, pain, high blood pressure, and diabetes. However, research indicates that bariatric surgery patients are at a higher risk of developing alcoholism. Gastric bypass surgery alters how the human body metabolizes alcohol. Consequently, many bariatric surgeons require patients to abstain from alcohol entirely for six months to a full year before weight-loss surgery.

Risk Factors of Alcoholism

Knowing the warning signs of alcoholism can help identify a potential problem before it gets too far out of control, and anyone with the risk factors of alcoholism in their own life should be aware of them so they can take steps to prevent the disease from taking root. Identifying specific risk factors might also influence treatment decisions.

Here are some of the most common risk factors seen in those who develop alcoholism.

High Stress Levels

Having one or two drinks at the end of a long day or week is something millions of adults do to unwind, but there is a definite link between stress and alcoholism. High levels of stress are a health threat that needs management, but using alcohol to reduce stress levels can turn into a health issue of its own. 

Take a moment to consider certain industries or career paths that involve long hours of strenuous work. Acute stress can improve motivation and response times in these situations in the short term, but chronic stress can result in burnout and dull brain capacity over time. Alcohol makes things worse by acting as a depressant that further slows down thinking and response times while altering the delicate brain chemistry balance.

Early Exposure

Children who grow up around relatives who drink alcohol become accustomed to it. With the increased familiarity also comes the potential of underage drinking. When children have easy access to alcohol in their homes, they are more likely to experiment with it even before they encounter peer pressure situations in their social circles. Being surrounded by family members who drink a lot can taint the views young people have about alcohol, and they then pick up the habits of their family.

Peer Pressure

Not everyone who drinks alcohol actually wants to start. The threat of peer pressure is very real. While the idea is commonly associated with teenagers, people of any age can feel peer pressure in certain circumstances. College and university students might feel as if they must drink alcohol to be liked or fit in. Adults can feel a similar pressure in work settings when trying to bond with their professional colleagues, and the expectation for everyone to participate in a toast or celebratory drinking is common at family meals, weddings, and other events.


The human body gets used to alcohol as time progresses. That means a user builds up tolerance and needs more alcohol to feel its effects than they did before. As a result, many alcoholics feel as if they don’t have a problem because they need so much alcohol to get drunk in the first place.

Underage Drinking

As stated earlier, underage drinking can be a cause of alcoholism. However, it can also be a risk factor. Alcohol experimentation start early. The average ages for young people first trying alcohol are 11 for boys and 13 for girls. Kids this young lack the maturity or life experience to handle alcohol responsibly. This irresponsible behavior around alcohol may persist well into adulthood. For example, binge drinking during the adolescent years can put an individual at risk for developing alcoholism in their 20s, 30s, or any age in life. 

Our Mission

Many people limit alcohol consumption to social situations. Social or occasional drinkers usually don’t get drunk, and that’s not alcoholism. On the other hand, it’s crucial to recognize when you or someone you care about might be suffering from an alcohol use disorder. At Alcohol Awareness, we’re here to help anyone looking for guidance in recovery. Our alcoholism hotline is available 24/7 at 885-955-0771. Call to speak with someone about questions you have about alcoholism, find a local AA group, or connect with healthcare professionals who can help you or your loved one gain control over alcoholism.