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University Students with a Dense Family History of Alcoholism are most at Risk of Alcohol-use Disorders

August 1, 2008
Mark D. Wood

Mark D. Wood.  (August 2008).  Density of familial alcoholism and its effects on alcohol use and problems in college students.  Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER).  32(8):

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This measure looks at first-, second- and third-degree relatives instead of just one parent, usually paternal


  • Not all university students will “mature out” of their heavy-drinking habits.
  • A new study examines the density of college students’ family history of alcoholism.
  • This type of measure – looking at first-, second- and third-degree relatives – identified a significant number of at-risk individuals who would have been missed using regular family-history measures.


While many university students tend to “mature out” of heavy-drinking behavior by the time they become young adults, some go on to develop alcohol-use disorders (AUDs).  Most genetic research on an individual’s family history of alcoholism (FHA) has looked at the parents’ – usually paternal – alcohol use.  New findings indicate that looking at the density of FHA – including first-, second- and third-degree relatives – is much more telling. 

Results will be published in the August issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at OnlineEarly.

“Using a density measure of FHA can identify a greater number of individuals who may be at risk for developing an alcohol problem,” said Christy Capone, a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies and the study’s first author.  “The greater number of affected relatives … the greater the potential risk of developing an AUD.  Ours is the first published study to examine this measure among college students.”

“Family density appears to be a promising method to identify a higher percentage of at-risk individuals,” agreed John Hustad, research associate at Brown University.  “For example, in this study, approximately 44 percent of the at-risk participants would have been missed if a typical family-history measure had been used instead of the family-history density approach.”

The study population for this research consisted of 408 undergraduate students (293 females, 115 males) from a northeastern U.S. university who were asked to complete an anonymous survey for course credit during the 2005-2006 academic year.

“Our use of a density measure identified a large proportion of students, about 29 percent, who are at potentially greater risk for development of AUDs based on their report of alcoholism among first- and second-degree relatives,” said Capone.  “Our other key finding was the relationship between FHA and other potential risk factors – behavioral undercontrol, age of onset of drinking (AOD), and cigarette use.”

All of these risks factors are inter-related, added Hustad.  “First, family-history density was related to AOD, behavioral undercontrol, and current cigarette use which, in turn, are related to alcohol use and/or alcohol-related problems in this sample of college students.  Second, behavioral undercontrol was associated with alcohol problems but not the degree of alcohol consumption; this suggests that individuals with a family-history density of AUDs and behavioral undercontrol are more likely to behave irresponsibly when drinking.”

“The importance of identifying these risk factors is the idea that they can be useful markers of at-risk status and can help us to develop appropriate intervention strategies,” said Capone.  “Although, given the fact that many students come to college already having experience with alcohol, I believe that preventive interventions should begin early in the high-school years or during the transition from middle school to high school.”

Hustad agreed.  “Due to the relationship between earlier AOD and more alcohol-related problems during college, it is clear that education and prevention efforts should begin well before the college years,” he said.  “Until that happens, the risk factors identified in this research can be easily implemented in any screening and brief intervention for incoming college students.  For example, these results suggest that effective interventions addressing tobacco use may have a positive influence on both smoking and alcohol-related consequences.”

“It is important to remember that not everyone with density of familial alcoholism will go on to develop a long-term problem with alcohol themselves,” said Capone.  “Alcohol dependence is a very complex disorder and FHA is but one influence on its development.  However, college students who are heavy drinkers and have a greater density of familial alcoholism are certainly at higher risk of continuing to drink in a problematic fashion after the college years.”