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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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New Clue on Family Alcoholism Risk

In High-Risk Families, Novelty Seekers May Have Greatest Alcoholism Risk
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 26, 2006 -- In families with a history of alcoholism, personality may influence who becomes or doesn't become an alcoholic.

Richard Grucza, PhD, MPE, and colleagues report the news in July's issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Grucza's team focused on novelty seeking, a personality trait linked to less inhibition. They studied data on 1,111 U.S. adults with an alcohol-dependent brother or sister, half of whom also had at least one alcoholic parent.

Participants completed a personality questionnaire that measured novelty seeking. They were also asked about their alcohol use.

Nearly half of the participants were alcohol dependent. Novelty seekers from high-risk families were most likely to be alcohol dependent. Those who weren't novelty seekers were less likely to be an alcoholic.

Checking the Family Tree

Study participants were 34 years old, on average. That's old enough to be out of the peak years for developing alcohol dependence, the researchers note.

Most participants were white (84%). Women made up more than half of the group (56%). More than half of all participants were married (55%). More than half had more than a high school education (54%).

The researchers split participants into two groups, based on family history of alcoholism:

  • High risk. Alcoholic sibling and at least one alcoholic parent.
  • Medium risk. Alcoholic sibling but no alcoholic parents.

A total of 291 out of 540 high-risk participants were alcoholics. So were 205 out of 571 medium-risk participants.

Novelty Seeking

The study shows that novelty seeking boosted alcoholism risk in families with a history of alcoholism.

The reverse was also true. Not being a novelty seeker appeared to be protective against alcoholism in people with a family history of alcoholism.

"Low novelty seeking may confer protection against the risk associated with familial alcoholism," the researchers write. Novelty seeking was a stronger predictor of alcoholism risk in people from high-risk families, compared with those from low-risk families.

Family history and personality likely interact with each other to raise or lower alcoholism risk, note Grucza and colleagues. They call for further studies to learn more about those patterns.

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