How to Know Your Risk Factors for Addiction

Doctor consulting with a patient.

Written by President of the American Academy of Family Physicians Wanda Filer, MD, FAAFP, MBA

If you want to know whether you’re at risk for addiction, start by looking at your family tree.

While your family history certainly isn’t the only risk factor for addiction, it’s a very important one. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, genes are responsible for about half the risk for alcoholism and drug addiction. I always tell my patients that what you don’t know can hurt you. After all, you can’t know your level of risk until you know your family history.

That’s why The National Night of Conversation is so important. The National Night of Conversation on November 19th encourages everyone to break the silence about alcoholism and drug addiction. We’re asking people all over the country to speak openly and honestly about family members who have struggled with alcohol and drug problems. Let them know that addiction isn’t a nameless, faceless problem – it’s a chronic disease. Help your children and family members understand what addiction looks like and the role addiction has played in your family. While you’re at it, be prepared to answer questions about your own drug use in an honest and age-appropriate way. If you don’t know where to start, take a look at The National Night of Conversation guide. It contains statistics and tips to get the conversation started.

The conversation won’t be fun. It probably won’t be easy. But I promise that it’s worth having. Addiction is incredibly painful – not just for the person who is abusing drugs or alcohol, but for the people who love and care about that person. Too many of us respond to that pain with silence and secrecy. It’s time to break the silence. Meaningful discussions about substance abuse can help those around us make better choices.

Once you’ve had the first of what I hope will be many conversations with your family, talk to your family doctor. Addiction is a chronic disease. Just as you feel comfortable telling your family physician about your grandfather’s heart disease or your aunt’s breast cancer, you should feel comfortable telling your doctor about your family’s history with addiction. Take it from me – a family physician – I’m better able to take care of my patients and their families when I know the full story.

Speak openly with your doctor. You won’t get judgement; you’ll get better, more informed care.