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When watching a loved one struggle with addiction, it is easy to fall into thinking, “What went wrong?” Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question. An individual’s risk for developing drug addiction is complex and caused by numerous factors, some of which we will never know. However, understanding the risk factors that cause addiction to originate can help decrease a person’s risk of addiction.

The Risk Factors

Scientists have identified numerous risk factors for addiction, and more research is being done each year about the ways in which biological and environmental factors increase risk of drug addiction. Some of the most common risk factors include:

Genetics: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that genetic factors are responsible for 50% of a person’s risk for developing an alcohol use disorder; these figures are thought to be similar for addiction to other substances.

There is no one “addiction gene” that increases a person’s risk. Instead, numerous genes — many of which control the release of chemicals in the brain — make a person more likely to develop drug addiction. Research continues to uncover interesting associations between genes and treatment success, but many of these findings are too preliminary to use in clinical practice.

Age of first use: People of any age can become addicted to drugs or alcohol. However, many people who struggle with addiction report that they began using drugs when they were adolescents or young adults. Given that the brain is still developing during this period, beginning drug use at this time may be more likely to result in addiction.

Co-occurring mental health problems: Approximately 8.4 million people in the United States have both a substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health problem, reports the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. People with depression and anxiety are more likely to experience addiction, perhaps because drugs are used as coping strategies.

Co-occurrence of mental health problems and addiction are even higher in serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Scientists believe that addiction and mental health problems may share underlying biological circuitry.

Gender: Men experience addiction at higher rates than women. Whether this is due to biological factors, social environment, or other causes is unclear. However, although rates of addiction are lower in women, speed of disease progression is faster.

Family conflict: Particularly for adolescents, family conflict or absentee caregivers can increase likelihood of developing a substance use disorder. Drugs and alcohol may provide temporary relief from a painful family situation.

Using highly addictive drugs: Certain drugs have a higher addictive potential than others. For example, opiates, cocaine, and methamphetamine are more likely to result in addiction than other drugs. Addiction also develops more quickly for people who frequently misuse these drugs.

How Does Addiction Originate in an Individual?

None of these factors alone explain why a particular person develops drug addiction. In general, experts believe that each of us has a unique biological risk profile for substance abuse, including genetic factors, brain structure, metabolism, gender, and age. However, biological factors are not the only causes. For example, a person with no genetic risk factors for alcoholism may go through a stressful life event that causes him to drink heavily.

Conversely, someone with a strong family history of addiction may choose never to experiment with drugs and thus does not experience addiction. Understanding each person’s full life history, including biological and environmental factors, is critical to treatment success.

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Factors that Increase a Person’s Risk of Addiction
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