By studying first-, second- and third-degree relatives instead of just one parent, researchers found that people who have a solid family history of alcoholism are most likely to develop alcohol-use disorders (AUDs).
Usually, a number of university students tend to "mature out" of heavy-drinking behaviour before touching adulthood, but still there are those who go on to develop AUDs.
While most of the genetic research on an individual's family history of alcoholism (FHA) concentrates on the parents' - usually paternal - alcohol use. However, the findings of the new study indicate that focussing on the density of FHA - including first-, second- and third-degree relatives, can reveal a great deal of the likeliness of a student developing AUD.
"Using a density measure of FHA can identify a greater number of individuals who may be at risk for developing an alcohol problem. The greater number of affected relatives ... the greater the potential risk of developing an AUD. Ours is the first published study to examine this measure among college student," said Christy Capone, a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University's Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies and the study's first author.
"Family density appears to be a promising method to identify a higher percentage of at-risk individuals. For example, in this study, approximately 44 percent of the at-risk participants would have been missed if a typical family-history measure had been used instead of the family-history density approach," agreed John Hustad, research associate at Brown University.
This research was conducted on 408 undergraduate students (293 females, 115 males) from a northeastern U.S. university. And they were asked to complete an anonymous survey for course credit during the 2005-2006 academic year.
"Our use of a density measure identified a large proportion of students, about 29 percent, who are at potentially greater risk for development of AUDs based on their report of alcoholism among first- and second-degree relatives. Our other key finding was the relationship between FHA and other potential risk factors - behavioral undercontrol, age of onset of drinking (AOD), and cigarette use," said Capone.
Hustad further added that all these risks factors are actually inter-related. He said: "First, family-history density was related to AOD, behavioral undercontrol, and current cigarette use which, in turn, are related to alcohol use and/or alcohol-related problems in this sample of college students. Second, behavioral undercontrol was associated with alcohol problems but not the degree of alcohol consumption; this suggests that individuals with a family-history density of AUDs and behavioral undercontrol are more likely to behave irresponsibly when drinking."
"The importance of identifying these risk factors is the idea that they can be useful markers of at-risk status and can help us to develop appropriate intervention strategies. Although, given the fact that many students come to college already having experience with alcohol, I believe that preventive interventions should begin early in the high-school years or during the transition from middle school to high school," said Capone.
Hustad agreed and said: "Due to the relationship between earlier AOD and more alcohol-related problems during college, it is clear that education and prevention efforts should begin well before the college years."
"It is important to remember that not everyone with density of familial alcoholism will go on to develop a long-term problem with alcohol themselves. Alcohol dependence is a very complex disorder and FHA is but one influence on its development. However, college students who are heavy drinkers and have a greater density of familial alcoholism are certainly at higher risk of continuing to drink in a problematic fashion after the college years," said Capone.
The results of this study will be published in a future issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research and are currently available at OnlineEarly.