Risk factors for addiction

By Maya Tyler

For both medical professionals and patients alike, it can be difficult to understand why particular people are more vulnerable to addiction than others. Often referred to as “the disease that knows no boundaries,” addiction doesn’t seem to discriminate based on color, ethnicity, height, weight, or social status. Moreover, attempting to identify the cause of addiction usually yields a complex answer. There can be numerous risk factors that may predispose a person for addictive behavior, regardless of an individual’s upbringing or moral code. While the risk factors for a drug addiction may differ than those for a sex or gambling problem, there tend to be many individual, social, and biological variables that combine to increase the chances there will be onset and progression of addiction of an individual if exposed to a substance or behavior.


Over the course of the last few decades, science has proven that addiction is not a matter of weak willpower or moral degeneration. It appears that the chemical reactions of an addicted brain are significantly different than those of a “normal,” un-addicted brain. This explains why one person may be able to smoke cigarettes occasionally for pleasure, while another needs them on a daily basis in order to feel normal and to function properly.


Heredity, is a significant risk factor for addiction. In fact, scientists estimate that 40 to 60 percent of a person’s predisposition for addiction is based on genetics. In families where addiction is present, children are far more likely to have addiction problems as adults, especially if they witness a parent’s addictive behavior on a day-to- day basis.

Unfortunately, a person with the “addictive personality” may be at risk for a wide range of addictions. For example, a person with an alcoholic parent may choose not to drink, but will then become addicted to smoking or compulsive eating. Brain activity and pleasure responses in the addicted person appear to be the same, regardless of the addictive substance or behavior.


Environmental factors can also pose risks to a potential addict. For children and adolescents, lack of parental involvement or supervision can enable risky behaviors or experimentation with alcohol or drugs. Additionally, young people who experience abuse or neglect from parents may begin to use substances or engage in addictive behavior as an emotional coping mechanism.

In older adolescents and even adults, peer pressure is also a risk factor for addiction. Though it might not be overt or aggressive in nature, the pressure from friends to fit in or be accepted in a particular social circle can often create a breeding ground for addiction to take root and develop. The availability of a substance, as in the case of a college student having easy access to drugs or alcohol, may also make it much easier for an individual to become addicted.

Environmental factors can be so strong that an addict in recovery usually finds it necessary to avoid certain situations or people that may trigger a craving or a relapse into the addictive behavior.

Dual Diagnoses

In the medical community, a person with a “dual diagnosis” is someone who has an identified addiction as well as a mental health disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression. It’s commonly believed that an underlying mental-emotional condition can predispose a person to addiction, and that the addiction can then exacerbate the symptoms or severity of the original condition. This causes a destructive cycle in which the addiction tends to progress rapidly and with severe negative consequences.

In other cases, a medical condition might predispose a person for addiction. For example, a person who is taking prescription pain pills after a surgery might become addicted to that substance. Or, an injury or illness could drastically change a person’s lifestyle, which can encourage the use of drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Drug of Choice

While some addictions progress slowly over the course of several months or years, certain substances may pose higher risks for addiction than others. Physiologically, drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines tend to be more physically addicting than substances like alcohol or marijuana. Since the withdrawal or “come-down” from cocaine or heroin use tends to be severely painful, the person is more likely to use the drug frequently and in higher doses, thereby significantly “speeding up” the process of addiction.


Just as particular drugs may be more addictive than others, the method of use can also predispose a person for addiction. Substances that are smoked or injected into the body tend to be more addictive than those that are ingested. This is because the substance goes straight into the bloodstream and brain without being filtered by the liver and other detoxifying organs.

Early Use

Another risk factor for addiction is the age at which the use or behavior started. Research has shown that the younger the user is, the more likely he or she is to become addicted. Addictive behavior in the developing years can also have a negative impact on brain development, making young people more prone to mental-emotional disorders as the addiction progresses into their later years.