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When does the drink take the man?: Biology plays a big part in alcoholism

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Posted: Friday, May 11, 2012 10:36 am

Community Perspective

When my three children were growing up, alcohol was never an issue. Young Jewish children usually get their first taste of wine during Passover. (Jews celebrating a Passover dinner are supposed to drink four cups of wine during the service, but I’ve never known anybody who does).

The children usually taste the wine at Passover and then decide grape juice tastes a lot better.

I have always thought that drinking in the context of a religious service removed the “forbidden fruit” aspects of alcohol and made alcohol addiction less likely.

But I don’t know if I’m right.

Maybe children who see moderate social drinking in their families are less likely to drink. Maybe if alcoholism runs in the family, it’s also a bad idea to introduce alcohol to your children.

I am both right and wrong, according to careful research on alcohol abuse conducted over many years.

Letting my children have alcohol at religious services or taste the wine their father was drinking at dinner is just one of many cultural patterns that support a life-long pattern of moderate drinking, writes Harvard psychologist George Valiant in his book, “The Natural History of Alcoholism: Causes, Patterns and Paths to Recovery.”

“Cultures that teach children to drink responsibly, cultures that have ritualized when and where to drink, tend to have lower rates of alcohol abuse than cultures that forbid children to drink.”

On the other hand, the genetic luck of the draw has huge effects on whether children grow up to abuse alcohol. This is where I am wrong — the importance of biology.

Adoption studies show that the children’s drinking patterns resemble those of their genetic parents, not their adoptive parents. If a biological parent abused alcohol, the likelihood was that the adopted child would also, even if they grew up in a family of responsible, social drinkers. But genetics and social patterns of drinking are not the only factors that cause alcoholism, Valiant found.

In a remarkable study, Valiant followed 204 college men and 456 Core City men for 40 years. He could see what factors were linked to alcohol abuse, like childhood personality.

The boys were interviewed repeatedly along with their teachers and patterns. Valiant scoured law enforcement, mental health and social agency records.

The boys who abused alcohol later in life had a lot of positive traits. “They were significantly less likely to be shy, inhibited and selfconscious than non-alcoholics and were just as likely to be viewed as sociable, sensible and vital.”

But the future alcohol abusers were more apt to lack purpose in life and were more apt to drift.

Many young men who later became alcoholics, however, gave no sign of what was in store.

Take one of Valiant’s college men, whom he calls “James O’Neill.”

In his early 20s, he appeared the picture of psychological health.

He was described as “enthusiastic, whimsical, direct, confident, outstanding.” He was not one to hold grudges. He married his childhood girlfriend and the marriage seemed solid.

By his late 20s, he had begun drinking heavily and had begun morning drinking. He blamed his mother, to whom he had been devoted, for his alcoholism. She was cold to him, he insisted, and, like many other alcoholics, he had developed an impressive history of resentment.

Not until he joined Alcoholics Anonymous did he get sober, and his relationship to AA became a powerful force in his life.

Our goal should be preventing alcohol abuse in the first place. Our best weapon, concludes Valiant, is the way we raise our children. We want alcoholism to be under our children’s conscious control throughout their lives.

Otherwise the Japanese proverb will hold true: “First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man.”

As parents, our best bet is to introduce children to the use of alcohol at appropriate times, such as during religious ceremonies, with meals, and in the presence of other people and also to condemn alcohol abuse. And maybe use grape juice if alcohol runs in the family.

Judith Kleinfeld, a long-time columnist for the Daily News-Miner, holds a doctorate from Harvard and is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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