Genetic, environmental factors both influence addiction risk

Genetic, environmental factors both influence addiction risk

Last month, we explored the neurobiology of addiction. This month, we highlight Chapter 3 of the U.S. surgeon general’s report, which addresses prevention programs and policies.

While science explains the mechanism of addiction, the greatest unanswered question is why changes in the brain lead to addiction in some people, while others are able to use drugs or alcohol and not develop an addiction.

Therefore, it is important to understand the goals of prevention science. In order to steer people away from the abuse of substances, risk factors and protective factors alike must be identified to design and develop effective interventions.

An intervention, as defined in the report, is a professionally delivered program, service or policy designed to prevent substance misuse or treat an individual’s substance use disorder.

According to the report, between 40 percent and 70 percent of a person’s risk for developing a substance abuse disorder is genetic; however, environmental factors interact with a person’s genes to modify that risk.

Associating with people who use drugs and alcohol, whether in school or in the neighborhood, is a risk factor. Being raised by, or exposed to, family members who use drugs or alcohol also contributes to the risk that a child will try those substances and potentially develop a substance-use disorder.

An additional and very important risk factor to consider is the age when someone first uses drugs. Children who use alcohol before age 15 are four times more likely to become addicted to alcohol at some time in their lives compared with those who begin after the age of 20.

The report also notes that “70 percent of children who use illicit drugs before the age of 13 develop a substance-use disorder in the next seven years compared with 27 percent of those children who first try drugs after the age of 17.”

Therefore, any intervention program working with children must include preventing substance use entirely or at least delaying experimentation with those substances as long as possible to escape problems later in life.

The most effective interventions work to reduce or eliminate risk factors but also to increase protective factors. Protective factors increase resources and strengths, which prove effective in reducing or eliminating substance abuse. Strong family connections and creating engagement within the community are other important protective factors.

Helping everyone, not just youth, in creating and enhancing feelings of life satisfaction, self-control and emotional resilience are highly important protective factors used to assist in creating effective interventions. It is never too early or too late to prevent or reduce substance abuse.

All agree that prevention works.

However, whatever interventions are used must be evidence-based — rigorously evaluated and shown to make a positive, statistically significant difference in the important outcomes — addressing not only alcohol and drug abuse, but the other risk factors that contribute to substance abuse too. These prevention programs not only help the target populations they are designed to serve, but the greater community, as well.

The mission statement of Project Bald Eagle: A 501(c)3 non-profit organization that is leading coalition efforts to stem the tide of the heroin epidemic through education, prevention, treatment, enforcement and data monitoring.