By On August 19th, 2014

Exploring How Gender, Genetics, and Environment Influence Risk of Substance Abuse


It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that gender has a significant influence on the health risks and needs individuals face every day, especially in the face of high-risk environments. However, a new study says genetics also have a significant role in the equation.

The study, led by sociologist Brea Perry from Indiana University, investigated men and women who had a genetic sensitivity to stressful situations. While they found that strong family and community ties can reduce the risk of substance abuse for males, the researchers also saw that women with the same genetic sensitivity were more influenced by factors associated with strong social ties.

“It is likely that gene-environment interactions may operate differently for men and women, perhaps because they experience some aspects of the social world in divergent ways,” said Perry. “In families and communities, for example, women often bear more responsibility for developing and maintaining relationships and so more of the care work that is required in those contexts. We cannot assume that a social environment that is favorable for men, and thus reduces the harmful impact of a risky genotype, is also beneficial for women, or vice versa.”

The study, which was presented yesterday at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco, used data from the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism to map genes associated with alcohol dependence and patterns of abuse and behavior to evaluate 4,307 adults and 1,026 families in all.

Despite showing a genetic predisposition towards substance abuse, not all participants were diagnosed with substance dependence. Perry and colleagues also notably focused on the GABRA2 gene, which is specifically related to the risk of substance use disorders due to sensitivity to stressful social environments.

The findings showed that social integration can help men who struggle with substance abuse, especially those who showed need for additional emotional support to stay away from excessive drinking or drug use. But, although ties to family and community were positive for most women, Perry found that the demands of relationships could be overwhelming for those with a sensitivity to stress.

“It is quite likely that any heritable health condition that is influenced by social factors, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression, might exhibit gender-specific gene-environment interactions,” Perry concludes.

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