Daughters of alcoholics

During the last decade, most of the research on genetic and environmental variables relevant to children of alcoholics has focused on the sons of alcoholics. In contrast, symposium participants at the annual meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism in Santa Barbara, California in June 2005 focused on moderators of risk for alcoholism and other psychopathologies among daughters of alcoholics. Proceedings are published in the February issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"There are probably several reasons for a preponderance of research on the sons of alcoholics," said Aruna Gogineni, assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "For example, men have higher rates of alcohol dependence than women, and researchers who are interested in two-generation alcohol dependence therefore tend to focus on male offspring. There also is a general bias towards studying men more than women in other disorders, such as cardiovascular disease, and this may play a role. A third possibility is that studies that originate in Veterans' Affairs hospitals will have more access to males. Finally, there may also be more of a bias because studying women is more complicated; there is a need to account for factors such as menstrual cycles and pregnancy status."

Some of the symposium's key proceedings were:

- Certain predictors appear to be shared by men and women: a history of externalizing symptoms (such as conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder) and looking older as an adolescent. Affiliation with a religion that forbids alcohol appears to serve as a protective factor for both genders. Conversely, severe physical punishment was a predictor of several outcomes for women, but not for men.

"It is possible that severe physical punishment may include some instances of sexual abuse of women," said Gogineni. "It is possible that the punishment itself is not responsible for the increased substance use, rather, the punishment may be a 'marker' of very dysfunctional families, and it may be other characteristics of these families that actually increase the risk of later substance involvement."

- Male and female adolescents exhibit different levels of behavioral disinhibition. The underlying genetic and environmental transmission of risk for behavioral disinhibition may be different for the genders during this time; and as adolescents transition to later adolescence and young adulthood, these gender differences may become more pronounced.

"Findings suggest that boys tend to have higher levels of acting-out behaviors like bad peer affiliations, delinquent behaviors, etc. than girls," said Gogineni. "However, the underlying influences on parental transmission of alcoholism may be different for some behaviors. Adoption research results suggest that genetic factors are relatively more influential in the relationship between parental alcoholism and offsprings' acting-out problems than environmental factors. But for some behaviors, there seems to be a somewhat stronger effect of alcoholic parental environment on girls relative to boys." She cautioned that these were preliminary findings.

- In general, behavioral undercontrol appears to be the strongest mediator of family history of alcoholism for both genders. However, both negative affectivity and, in particular, childhood stressors, may be stronger correlates of alcohol-use disorders among women.

"The risk of developing alcohol-use disorders is particularly high among young adults with a history of behavior characterized by rule breaking and disregard for authority," explained Gogineni. "For women, there is additional risk conferred by a personality that is neurotic, anxious, and avoidant of harm, as well as a history of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse prior to age 18. These women may be using alcohol to 'self-medicate' their distress."

- Daughters with a positive history of parental alcoholism appear to have an increased risk of lifetime symptoms of alcohol dependence and alcohol-related negative consequences compared to daughters without a positive family history of alcoholism. However, no differences in daughters' alcohol involvement were observed with respect to maternal versus paternal alcoholism.

"The data suggest that, despite lower rates of alcohol use disorders among women, a history of alcoholism in the father connotes greater risk for the development of an alcohol use disorder among daughters of alcoholics than among sons of alcoholics," said Gogineni. "This risk was explored from ages 18 through to 28, and it was found that the stronger risk for women was present throughout this period."

Gogineni said that she hoped the symposium helped to clarify that the causes of alcohol and drug misuse in men and women are not identical. "Clearly there are some common antecedents, such as conduct disorder or symptoms, but there are also predictors unique to each gender," she said. "There are possible differences in how alcoholic parental risk is transmitted from parent to daughter versus parent to son as well as, for example, a greater effect of parental alcoholism history on women than men. These are the kinds of findings that call out for many more studies on women in order to determine how the mechanisms of alcoholic parental risk may differ in men and women."

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Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER) is the official journal of the Research Society on Alcoholism and the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism. Co-presenters at the ACER symposium, "Female Offspring of Alcoholics: Recent Findings on Alcoholism and Psychopathology Risks," were: Serena King of the Department of Psychology at Hamline University; Kristina Jackson of Brown University Medical School; and John Kramer of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa. Co-authors of the ACER manuscript were: Kathleen Bucholz of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University as well as the Midwest Alcoholism Research Center; Grace Chan of the Department of Statistics at the University of Iowa; William Iacono and Matt McGue of the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota; Samuel Kuperman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa; Jenny M. Larkins and Kenneth J. Sher of the University of Missouri as well as the Midwest Alcoholism Research Center; Richard Longabaugh, Robert Stout, David Strong, and Robert Woolard of Brown University Medical School; Linnea Polgreen of the Department of Economics at the University of Iowa. Research was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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