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

May 2, 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: There are four types of drinker – which one are you?

Related Stories

There are four types of drinker – which one are you?

February 16, 2018
It's easy to see alcohol consumption being a result of thousands of years of ritual and a lifetime of habit. But have you ever stopped to consider why it is you choose to drink? Knowing what motivates people to drink is important ...

Wearables could catch heart problems that elude your doctor

February 16, 2018
For years, Kathi Sigona felt like she had "a chest full of writhing worms in a bag."

Here's to a healthy pregnancy

February 15, 2018
(HealthDay)—Take good prenatal care of yourself and not only will you have a healthier baby, you'll also lower his or her risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease later in life.

New technique for identifying alcoholism puts treatment options at patients' and providers' fingertips

February 6, 2018
Ninety percent of adults in the U.S. with an Alcohol Use Disorder don't get treatment, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health. To help make treatment ...

Resolutions to cut drinking may be tough to keep

January 30, 2018
(HealthDay)—New Year's resolutions to curb drinking are likely made with the best intentions. But wishful thinking often isn't enough, a new survey suggests.

Being a single dad can shorten your life: study

February 15, 2018
The risk of dying prematurely more than doubles for single fathers compared to single mothers or paired-up dads, according to a study of Canadian families published Thursday.

Recommended for you

Best of Last Year—The top Medical Xpress articles of 2017

December 20, 2017
It was a good year for medical research as a team at the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, found that dancing can reverse the signs of aging in the brain. Any exercise helps, the team found, but dancing ...

Pickled in 'cognac', Chopin's heart gives up its secrets

November 26, 2017
The heart of Frederic Chopin, among the world's most cherished musical virtuosos, may finally have given up the cause of his untimely death.

Sugar industry withheld evidence of sucrose's health effects nearly 50 years ago

November 21, 2017
A U.S. sugar industry trade group appears to have pulled the plug on a study that was producing animal evidence linking sucrose to disease nearly 50 years ago, researchers argue in a paper publishing on November 21 in the ...

Female researchers pay more attention to sex and gender in medicine

November 7, 2017
When women participate in a medical research paper, that research is more likely to take into account the differences between the way men and women react to diseases and treatments, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.

Drug therapy from lethal bacteria could reduce kidney transplant rejection

August 3, 2017
An experimental treatment derived from a potentially deadly microorganism may provide lifesaving help for kidney transplant patients, according to an international study led by investigators at Cedars-Sinai.

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017
People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...

0 comments

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.