Spouse may 'drive you to drink' but also can protect you from alcohol

May 02, 2007

Men and women at risk for alcohol dependence are more likely to choose a mate who also is at risk, say investigators at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that both spouses will end up as problem drinkers.

Alcoholism is more common among partners of alcoholics than among partners of non-alcoholics, but it isn't as common as it might be. The researchers found that in some cases, one spouse's excesses with alcohol actually could help protect the other from alcohol dependence.

A team of researchers from Washington University and from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane, Australia, studied 5,974 twins born between 1902 and 1964 who were part of the Australian Twin Register. They also spoke with 3,814 of those twins' spouses for the study, published in the May issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"As they say, 'like marries like,'" says first author Julia D. Grant, Ph.D., research assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University. "Spouse selection is not a random process, and we call this non-random mating. People tend to choose mates who are similar to them, not only from the same neighborhood or socio-economic background but also alike in personality and other behaviors. We found that people at risk for alcohol dependence tend to marry others who are at risk."

Alcohol dependence is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Genetic influences explain about half of the variance in a person's total risk for alcohol dependence. The other half of an individual's risk for alcohol dependence comes from environmental factors — such things as employment, interests, friends and family.

"There's lots of room for different factors to influence the behavior of two people who are married," Grant says. "One spouse could work at a place where the co-workers go out for a drink after work. Or one spouse could be a regular churchgoer, while the other prefers to sleep."

Another aspect of the environment is the drinking behavior of one's partner. The researchers found that the impact of the partner's drinking depends on whether it's examined along with non-random mating. Once the researchers accounted statistically for the fact that "like marries like," they saw that the additional influence of the partner's behavior tended to reduce the likelihood of problem drinking. Grant says that although non-random mating means that a person with genetic risks for alcohol problems will tend to marry another with a propensity toward alcohol dependence, it appears that when one spouse begins to abuse alcohol, the other might actually reduce alcohol intake.

"We don't really know how this works," she explains. "It is possible that an individual decreases his or her alcohol consumption in reaction to the other's excessive alcohol use. Maybe one person is responsible for getting the kids up and out for school in the morning, for example."

Grant says she hopes soon to study how spouses might influence not only each other's risk of alcohol dependence but also other psychiatric disorders, such as depression and how those factors interact. And she says as more is learned about these risks, it's important to let people know what they're up against.

"Education is a key to reducing risk for alcohol dependence," she says. "Regardless of genetic risks, there are other detrimental environmental factors associated with alcohol, including reduced educational attainment and income, fewer social and neighborhood support networks, higher rates of divorce and single parenthood and exposure to other psychiatric problems. We need to make people aware of all of their risks, so they can take steps to protect themselves."

Source: Washington University School of Medicine

Explore further: Radiologist recommendations for chest CT have high clinical yield

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Simplifying measures of genetic risk for alcohol dependence

Apr 05, 2010

While previous twin studies have consistently shown the importance of genetic influences on various measures of alcohol consumption, a full diagnostic assessment can be complicated and lengthy. This has led some researchers ...

Research shows cellphone use may not cause more car crashes

Aug 08, 2013

For almost 20 years, it has been a wide-held belief that talking on a cellphone while driving is dangerous and leads to more accidents. However, new research from Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics ...

Fly society

Jul 04, 2013

(Phys.org) —USC Dornsife's Sergey Nuzhdin, professor of molecular biology, uses fruit flies to examine whether behavior is genetic- or social environment-based. The team provided proof for the first time ...

Recommended for you

Obese British man in court fight for surgery

Jul 11, 2011

A British man weighing 22 stone (139 kilograms, 306 pounds) launched a court appeal Monday against a decision to refuse him state-funded obesity surgery because he is not fat enough.

2008 crisis spurred rise in suicides in Europe

Jul 08, 2011

The financial crisis that began to hit Europe in mid-2008 reversed a steady, years-long fall in suicides among people of working age, according to a letter published on Friday by The Lancet.

New food labels dished up to keep Europe healthy

Jul 06, 2011

A groundbreaking deal on compulsory new food labels Wednesday is set to give Europeans clear information on the nutritional and energy content of products, as well as country of origin.

Overweight men have poorer sperm count

Jul 04, 2011

Overweight or obese men, like their female counterparts, have a lower chance of becoming a parent, according to a comparison of sperm quality presented at a European fertility meeting Monday.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.