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The development of an addiction, or substance use disorder, never occurs as a result of a single cause. Substance use disorders are very complicated disorders that develop under a number of different contexts and in many different individuals. There are no guarantees that one will or will not develop a substance use disorder unless one is never exposed to a potential addicting substance. However, since many different types of substances (drugs, alcohol, etc.) and behavioral experiences can be associated with addictive-type behaviors, nearly everyone has some level of risk to develop some type of substance use disorder or addictive behavior even though the majority of individuals will not develop these behaviors.
A risk factor represents a particular condition or situation that increases the probability that one will develop a specific disorder or disease. Conversely, the presence of certain protective factors decreases the probability that one will develop a specific disorder or condition. Some risk factors have significantly higher probabilities associated with their presence than others, and an individual who has multiple risk factors will be at higher risk to develop whatever disorder or condition the risk factors are associated with. However, there is no identified risk factor that is definitively associated with the development of addictive behaviors. Instead, the presence of certain risk factors increases the chances that one might develop an addictive behavior.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and the World Health Organization, the most salient risk factors associated with the development of substance use disorders and other addictive behaviors follow:
Genetic factors: A great deal of research investigating the association between certain genetic factors and the development of addictions has indicated that one’s genes play an important role in increasing or decreasing the probability that an individual will develop an addictive behavior. There are a number of different research methods that look at the association between certain genetic factors and the increased risk to develop addictive behaviors. Some of the most common associations that have been used to support the notion that genetic factors significantly contribute to the development of addiction are:
While it is certain that genetic influences do increase the probability that someone will develop an addictive behavior, they do not ensure that anyone will definitely develop an addiction. Moreover, there is no evidence that certain genetic factors cause anyone to develop an addiction.
It is important to reiterate that having any or all of the above experiences offers no guarantee that anyone will develop any type of substance use disorder or addictive behavior. These factors are merely associated with an increased risk to develop addictive behaviors; however, there also a number of protective factors that offset these often very salient risk factors. For example, the relationship between heredity (genes) and the development of a substance use disorder is relatively strong but not perfect. This suggests that even in the presence of significant salient genetic risk factors, a number of individuals must also have experienced other protective factors that offset their genetic risk. Not every individual who develops a severe major depressive disorder also develops a co-occurring substance use disorder. This indicates that other factors must be involved in the development of addictive behaviors in addition to clinical depression.Protective factors that are important include: