Chapter 2: Risk Factors of Addiction?

Who’s Really At Risk Might Surprise You!

Written by Dr. Dina Macaluso, Psy.D, L.M.H.C., Alan Boyd, & Sharon Therien

Risk Factors of Addiction

Why is it that you could become addicted to a drug more easily than another person?

In reality, it doesn’t work that way because there is more to addiction than a substance being addictive.

As mentioned in the first part of this guide, “What Is Addiction?,” numerous risk factors are associated with addiction that can give one person higher chances of becoming addicted to substances than another person. Generally, one risk factor doesn’t mean you’ll become addicted, but your chances go up with the more risk factors you can check off the list, explains the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

At the same time, it’s possible to avoid addiction despite risk factors, especially if you can lower your risk through protective factors. Also, keep in mind that addiction professionals have varying viewpoints on these risk factors just like they do on the definition and causes of addiction, which are covered in the first part of the guide. Nonetheless, these different biological, environmental and other risk factors might increase your risk or the risk of your children.

So what are these risk factors, and how could they affect you and your loved ones?

Biological and Psychological Risk Factors

Various biological and psychological risk factors are associated with a higher risk of addiction. The main one you could face is genetics, while others such as a co-occurring disorder and chemical deficiencies in the brain can also play a role. The National Institute on Drug Abuse also lists ethnicity, gender and development stages as biological risk factors of addiction, and this is not a complete list of potential risk factors.


Heredity is one of the major factors associated with an increased risk of becoming addicted to substances. “Scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction,” notes the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Nonetheless, this figure also encompasses how risk factors from your environment affect your genes.

Even if the addiction doesn’t exhibit itself in the same way as it did in your family member(s), you could still be prone to some type of addiction. You might not develop the addiction to cigarettes that your father had, but you could end up addicted to gambling, cocaine or alcohol instead.

“A person with an ‘addicted personality’ may be at risk for a wide range of
addictions,” explains Mara Tyler on Healthline.

Just like other traits skip generations, it’s also possible for an addiction that your mother or father has to skip you and show itself in your children, according to the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Some studies that account for genetic risk look at adoptions and twins to get a better idea of the role genes play. One prominent example is a 2003 study in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry. In the study, researchers Kenneth S. Kendler, MD; Carol A. Prescott, PhD; John Myers, MS; and Michael C Neale, PhD found that an identical twin would have a much greater risk of developing a substance problem when the other twin, who has all of the same genes, had a dependence compared to fraternal twins who have about half of the same genes.

How do genes affect addiction?

The Genetic Science Learning Center provides certain theories and evidence. The center explains that biological traits can cause you to have genes that make it more difficult than other people to stop using a substance after you’ve started. Part of the problem could be that your withdrawal symptoms are worse than someone else’s.

Nonetheless, the genetics of addiction is complicated. People with addictions are not all affected by the same genes, and you could have a gene that makes you susceptible to addiction yet not show that trait. At the same time, certain genes have been associated with specific addictive characteristics.

Example 1The Genetic Science Learning Center cites that research has shown that mice more interested in cocaine and alcohol than their counterparts did not have the serotonin receptor gene Htr1b.

Example 2Mice that had a defective Per2 gene consumed triple the normal amount of alcohol.

Additional Examples: Other examples show genes or gene variations that encourage against addiction by making an animal or person feel sick from an addictive substance, having a lower risk of becoming dependent or creating a similar condition that would ward against addiction.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System provides a deeper explanation. It notes that there is not one sole gene that creates an addiction, but instead says, “We believe that multiple genes play a role in the transmission of addiction from one generation to another. It is called Polygenic inheritance.”

Is there a consensus on the genetics of addiction?

Most addiction professionals do believe genetics are a factor in addiction, but similar to the idea that addiction is a disease, not all agree that they have such a prominent role. Even the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says, “Studies of specific families have not proven a genetic contribution.”

Professor of developmental psychology and neuroscience, Marc Lewis, PhD, says, “There is simply no gene or combination of genes that is linked with addiction as a trait.”

He does concede that genes are a part of the addiction equation, but he adds that, “the genes that are correlated with addiction are genes for traits like impulsivity. And even these correlations are often weak or inconsistent.” Further, he notes that these predispositions are not necessarily connected to just addiction, but instead to numerous experimentations or problems.

In addition, Lewis says that “brains rewire themselves with experience…these brain patterns were not preformed in the womb: they emerged over time.”

He agrees that there is a link between genetics and addiction, but that many other factors, both biological and environmental, come into play. In his article, he gives the example of a man who came from a family where both parents were continuously addicted to substances, yet the man never once tried drugs himself because he was afraid to do so.

Nonetheless, a common thread between viewpoints seems to be that a person is considered addicted when he is either unable or unwilling to stop using the substance. He continues to use the substance even when it is causing consequences in his life – he may or may not be aware of this cause and effect relationship.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Another important potential contributor to addiction is a mental disorder, which when present along with addiction is called one of the following:

A co-occurring disorder

A dual diagnosis


Having a mental disorder puts you more at risk of substance abuse or addiction. At the same time, the addiction can make your mental disorder worse and even cause new ones.

Thomas G. Durham, PhD, LADC, explains that “most patients entering substance abuse treatment programs have symptoms of psychiatric illness at the time of admission.” Nonetheless, there are different kinds of cases, and one of the problems of addiction or a mental disorder does not always cause the other.

Personality and Behavioral Factors

There are also attributes about each individual that can help determine whether or not you become addicted. In the example by Marc Lewis where the man didn’t become addicted, the reason was at least in part because he was afraid to try drugs. It was his own decision not to do drugs that stopped an addiction.

In a similar way, various personality and behavioral traits, as well as coping skills and personal decisions, could play a role. For instance, a lack of social skills can contribute to addiction, while learning and using coping skills can ward against it. Also, some people are considered to have an addictive personality because of their personality traits, which lead them to various kinds of addictions.

While these kinds of traits come from inside yourself, they are also affected by environment and experiences, which shows how complex risk factors of addiction are.

Environmental Risk Factors

While many studies show a role of genetic factors in addiction, there is often much more to the equation. The environment and experiences you are exposed to are also able to boost your chances of developing an addiction. These factors include what you face:

In your home environment

In your wider neighborhood and community

In your school

Exposures in your early life play a particularly large role, in part because, “Addiction is a developmental disease – it typically begins in childhood or adolescence,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

You could be surrounded by a wide range of these environmental risk factors. When your family has a history of addiction, it doesn’t only affect you on a genetic level. At the same time, numerous sources report that being around family members, especially when you’re young, who are abusing substances can make you more likely to do so as well.

When you have social influences who use substances or see them in a positive way, you could be more likely to go down the path to addiction. It’s the same story if you are lacking a social support network and/or guidance and supervision from your parents.

Further, it matters if substances are readily available in your environments. It also makes a difference what kind of area you live in; for instance, it could affect your risk of addiction if there is pride in your community or if it’s an area of poverty with substances as part of the culture.

Drug Use Factors

Drug use itself also affects your risk of becoming addicted. This might sound strange, but it actually makes sense because not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol abuses them or becomes addicted. Your drug use can encourage addiction in numerous ways.

Certain types of drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, can lead to an addiction more than others because they are more physically addictive and create stronger withdrawal symptoms. Injected and smoked drugs can also be especially addictive since they aren’t filtered by organs like swallowed drugs are.

Further, starting drug use at an early age can contribute to addiction, partly because it can change the development of the brain. The frequency and length of time you’ve been using a drug can also affect whether you become addicted.

Of course, abstaining from substances altogether can prevent addiction, while experimentation can contribute to it.

Is There Any Hope for a Predisposition to Addiction?

Understandably, you might be concerned about passing on a proneness to addiction to your children. You are probably also concerned if you are the child of an addicted person and/or you are exposed to some of the environmental and other factors that can increase your chances of addiction.

The good news is that it’s possible to minimize some of the risks of addiction. If you are a parent who’s addicted or has been addicted to a substance, you could decrease your children’s environmental risks by stopping your addiction and not subjecting your children to your usage of substances.

Also, you could teach your children healthy coping skills for life and work against other risk factors, such as not enough parental supervision and a lack of healthy social skills, while promoting protective factors at the same time.

It’s important for families to be open about addictions, especially because many keep this topic a secret. If you have an addiction, it might help your treatment to know that you had a genetic predisposition to addiction, and you could help other family members by telling them about your addiction(s).

Encourage an open dialogue between the different generations of your family to help everyone toward preventing or stopping an addiction.

Protective Factors

There is a counterpart to risk factors of addiction, and these are known as protective factors. Similar to how certain risk factors can make you more likely to develop heart disease while exercising and other lifestyle changes and actions can reduce your risk, these protective factors might make you less likely to develop an addiction.

At a young age, it can help if:

  • A school has anti-drug policies instead of allowing an environment where substances can be prevalent.
  • The child does well in school and has a positive school life.
  • There is pride in the community where a child lives.
  • The young person has healthy relationships with other people and receives supervision and guidance from parents.
  • The person has or develops strong self-control and utilizes coping skills.

Most addiction professionals and resources agree that risk factors are complex. Basically, biological, psychological and environmental factors can make you more likely to become addicted, but they won’t necessarily do so.

In addition, there are protective factors that can counteract those risk factors and help keep you from becoming addicted. If you do become addicted, be sure to mention your risk factors in treatment to help direct your recovery.

Keep reading for information on withdrawal, treatment and other aspects of addiction.