Rehab 4 Addiction

The Risk Factors of Addiction

What are the risk factors that can lead to addiction? This is a question that has gained a lot of attention within scientific research.

Most research suggests that anyone can become substance dependent, whether it is nicotine, heroin, or alcohol.

However, several important risk factors can increase the likelihood of an individual becoming a person with a substance disorder. These can range from upbringing to genetics, age, and gender.

Although risk factors can vary and are not definitive in predicting whether an individual will become substance dependent, understanding them is an important tool for helping prevent and overcome addiction.

This article will highlight some of the main risk factors of addiction.

Genetics and Family History as Risk Factors of Addiction

One important risk factor of addiction is genetics – something which has been found, in part at least, to determine the likelihood that someone will develop a substance disorder.

The reason for this is that human DNA contains cells that influence how a person thinks and behaves, and how they respond to certain chemicals; this means that some people are more likely to become substance-dependent than others. (1)

This likelihood of substance dependence is increased when there is a history of substance abuse within a family. For example, if a person’s parents are addicted to alcohol, they are 50% more likely to develop an alcohol dependency themselves.

For narcotics and other substances, this varies between 40-79%. (2)

Environmental Factors and Addiction

Although genetics is an important risk factor of addiction, research also suggests that individuals cannot become substance dependent without exposure. This means that an environment plays a part in the likelihood of someone becoming substance dependent.

One example of this is family upbringing. If a person’s family members are substance dependent, there is the potential for a child to be exposed to those substances. This is because, within such an environment, substances are both normalised and readily available.

Research has found that children with parents with addiction are eight times more likely to have one themselves in adulthood.

In addition, unstable family environments can increase the chances of children becoming substance dependent. Drugs and alcohol are often used as coping strategies and tools for dealing with traumatic childhood experiences.

Peer pressure from friends is also an important environmental factor. Commonly, substance consumption first occurs when it is offered by friends and associates.

In some cases, taking a substance socially can lead to habit, and then to addiction. (3)

Research has also found that where a person lives can determine whether they are likely to engage with alcohol or drugs. Studies have suggested that communities that are on the lower end of the socio-economic scale are more likely to normalise and promote drug use, therefore increasing the probability of drug addiction within those areas. (4)

Mental Health Issues Can Lead to Addiction

Mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and personality disorders are also risk factors of addiction. One reason for this is that various substances are used to lessen symptoms associated with mental health issues.

This can include the use of a substance to give a feeling of euphoria, increase motivation and confidence, alleviate stress, and manage mood swings.

Research on mental disorders and addiction has also found that mental health issues can increase risk-taking behaviours, such as consuming alcohol or taking illicit drugs.

Studies suggest that people suffering from mental health issues are also less inhibited and have impaired judgement. This leads to a lack of self-control and increased substance abuse, which, in turn, increases the chances of addiction. (5)

Trauma and Addiction

Research has also linked trauma with the risk of addiction. Trauma is not just the experience of something bad; it is a long-lasting result of negative experiences that disturb mental, physical, and social well-being.

Trauma can be caused by a variety of experiences:

  • Being in an accident
  • Natural disasters
  • Being Assaulted
  • Experiencing Violence
  • Being abused or bullied (emotionally, verbally, sexually or physically)

In some cases, when a person experiences a traumatic event, they find it difficult to process and deal with that experience in a healthy way. As a result, this can lead to increased and continuous stress, anxiety, emotional turmoil and even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In dealing with these issues, it is not uncommon for people to turn to alcohol or drugs as a form of self-medication. In some cases, this will create a dependency which can lead to an addiction. (6)

Age Groups and Addiction

Research also indicates that age is an important risk factor for addiction. Research conducted in 2020 by Public Health England, found that substance use was highest amongst sixteen-to nineteen-year-olds (21.1%) and twenty-to-twenty-four-year-olds (21%). (7)

In America, the National Centre for Drug Abuse Statistics found that 61.5% of teens have abused alcohol and 47% have tried an illicit drug by the age of seventeen. (8)

Studies have shown that there is a correlation between higher rates of drug and alcohol use amongst younger individuals with addiction rates.

In addition, the younger a person is when beginning to experiment with alcohol and drugs, the more likely they are to develop an addiction. The reason for this is that at a young age, the brain, such as the part of the brain that is responsible for self-control and managing impulses, is still developing. (9)

This also means that individuals that engage with substances from an early age are more susceptible to brain damage, something that can lead to mental health issues – which, as previously discussed, can then lead to addiction.

Gender and Addiction

There is increasing evidence that suggests that gender is a risk factor for addiction. It has been found that men are more likely to use alcohol and drugs and to become addicted to them.

There are several reasons for this, including higher rates of mental health issues, anxiety, depression, and lower life satisfaction amongst men.

Recent research indicates that feminine hormones – estrogen and progesterone – are influential in predicting the likelihood of drugs addiction.

High levels of progesterone, for example, have been found to alleviate the desire to take substances to alleviate stress and anxiety.

However, studies have found that estrogen has the opposite effect. Higher levels of estrogen increase negative moods, which, in turn, can lead to an increase in the likelihood of substance abuse. (10)

Different Substance, Different Risk Factor

Substances can vary in their potency and in how addictive they are. There are several reasons for this.

For example, both latency and euphoria are important factors. Latency refers to the time in which it takes for a drug to enter the bloodstream and reach the brain, and euphoria is the intensity of feeling that the substance produces.

Studies have found that substances with a shorter latency time have a greater euphoric effect. These substances are suggested to be much more addictive.

This includes substances such as tobacco, cocaine, and heroin.

Withdrawal is another factor. This refers to the physiological response to the decline of a substance in a person’s body.

Drugs such as heroin have a much longer withdrawal period, and greater negative physiological consequences when compared to substances such as nicotine or cannabis.

Studies have shown that the more severe the withdrawal, the more likely someone is to continue to take a substance. This can quickly lead to addiction. (11)

Varying Methods and Addiction

There are many ways that substances can enter the bloodstream. This can include:

  • Oral consumption (swallowing)
  • Inhalation (smoking)
  • Snorting (consumption through nasal passage)
  • Injecting

Not only do different methods increase the speed at which a substance enters the body, but they can determine the rate at which an individual can become substance dependent.

Injecting or smoking, for example, are considered the quickest methods and the most addictive. This is because a substance taken in this manner quickly enters the bloodstream and then the brain.

This is more addictive because is it more ‘euphorigenic’ than other methods.

Also, research has found that the quicker a substance reaches the brain, the more likely it is to negatively impact ‘inhibitory control of behaviour’. (12)

Consumption, on the other hand, takes longer for the body to process before it reaches the bloodstream and the brain – the effects are less immediate.


  1. s00439-012-1173-3.pdf (
  2. Epigenetics: a link between addiction and social environment | SpringerLink
  3. Modeling the role of environment in addiction – ScienceDirect
  4. 2016_06_understanding_the_relationship_between_poverty_and_alcohol_misuse.pdf (
  5. NIMH » Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders (
  6. Trauma and Addiction: Ending the Cycle of Pain Through Emotional Literacy – Tian Dayton – Google Books
  7. Drug misuse in England and Wales – Office for National Statistics (
  8. NCDAS: Substance Abuse and Addiction Statistics [2021] (
  9. Age and impulsive behavior in drug addiction: A review of past research and future directions – ScienceDirect
  10. Sex differences, gender and addiction – Becker – 2017 – Journal of Neuroscience Research – Wiley Online Library
  11. Addictive Potency of Substances (
  12. Why does the rapid delivery of drugs to the brain promote addiction? – ScienceDirect



Boris is our editor-in-chief at Rehab 4 Addiction. Boris is an addiction expert with more than 20 years in the field.  His expertise covers a broad of topics relating to addiction, rehab and recovery. Boris is an addiction therapist and assists in the alcohol detox and rehab process. Boris has been featured on a variety of websites, including the BBC, Verywell Mind and Healthline.