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In-Laws’ Drinking Could be Risk Factor in Developing Alcohol Use Disorder

Study Suggests that In-Laws’ Drinking Problems Could be Risk Factor in Developing AUD

social drinking with familyAddiction researchers have long established a link between alcohol use disorder (AUD) and a family history of alcoholism, but researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) believe that such familial-related links extend beyond one’s immediate family to include in-laws. While the original goal of the study was to examine how a spouse’s genetic makeup might influence AUD risks in the partner, they were surprised to find that a spouse’s exposure to AUD-affected parent(s) seemed to be a greater risk factor.

The study—“Disentangling Social-Genetic From Rearing-Environment Effects for Alcohol Use Disorder using Swedish National Data”—suggests that one’s marriage to a spouse who grew up exposed to parental AUD increases the likelihood of that person developing AUD, even in the absence a drinking disorder in the spouse.

This study “demonstrates the long reach that parental alcohol problems have on the next generation,” said lead researcher Jessica Salvatore, an associate professor of psychology at VCU. “It’s not just the offspring of affected parents who are at risk,” added Salvatore, “it’s the people those offspring end up marrying, too.”

Using marital information on more than 300,000 couples listed on Swedish national population registries, researchers found that marrying a spouse with AUD predispositions increased the partner’s risk for developing AUD. While this was not deemed surprising, researchers could not attribute the increased risk to socioeconomic factors, the spouse’s actual AUD status, nor contact with the in-laws. Instead, evidence suggested that the increased risk was due more to the “psychological consequences of the spouse having grown up with an AUD-affected parent” rather than any genetic components.

elderly woman facing camera with family drinking wineSalvatore believes the studies meld with evidence from other research that suggests that those who grow up with a parent with AUD may be prone to using alcohol as a marital interaction tool. For example, a child growing up with an AUD-affected parent may act as an adult in ways that encourage a spouse’s drinking habits and reinforce any drinking-related problems. “These kind of processes may inadvertently lead a spouse down the path of alcohol misuse,” she said, adding that these processes are likely subconscious in nature. “No one wants to give their spouse an alcohol problem,” she concluded.

The research effort also adds to the growing body of data concerning genetic versus rearing environments’ role in influencing alcohol abuse. In prior studies it has proven difficult to determine the extent to which a person’s AUD should be linked to genetics versus how they were raised because the parents provided both. While the study lends credence to the child raising environment as a factor in influencing AUD, it does not in any way negate genetic roles.

The study is part of a larger research initiative by Salvatore to understand “how the people we love shape the way we drink” and could prove beneficial in treating couples struggling with AUD. The findings lend support that some interventions and treatment for substance-use disorders may benefit from a couple or family style treatment approach.

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