Everyone wants to know what the causes of Addiction are, including health professionals and researchers. Finding a definite ‘cause’ of addiction has not yet been achieved. But we do know a lot about the risk factors that increase our risk of developing an addiction. It’s important to understand the difference between the cause of something, and the risk of developing something.
We also know a lot about the physical and chemical changes you can actually see in brain scans of people with an Addiction. These changes are the tell tale signs and results of addiction, but do not explain the actual ‘Cause’ of Addiction.
A cause is something that is proved to be the direct cause of something else. A must equal B. A direct cause and effect relationship has to be proved. Just because two situations often occur together doesn’t mean that one thing causes the other. They could both be caused by a third factor that no one knows about yet.
Things that commonly occur together might only be a coincidence. Or, one might be the cause of the other – no one knows for sure until science and research have either proved or disproved, which of those options is true.
A risk factor is not a cause.
Risk factors are discovered and assessed differently. Large groups of people who do have a particular condition are examined, tested and studied. At the same time, large populations of people who do not have this condition are also studied. This unaffected second group, is called The Control Group. Then the results from the two populations are compared against each other. The goal is to try to pin down exactly what differences, if any, can be found between these two groups of people.
If it’s found that a large percentage of affected people all have a particular factor in their make-up, or their background, and that factor is less common in the non-affected people, it’s possible that this factor might be giving people an increased risk of becoming affected by that condition. But that doesn’t mean that the factor is a cause of the condition. It just means that it carries an increased risk of developing that condition.
Understanding the Concept of Risk
A risk factor is something that only increases the chance that something else will happen. A risk factor does not mean you will necessarily suffer the outcome or consequence of having that increased risk.
Suppose all of your family have died of heart attacks before the age of 60 – this means you have probably inherited an increased risk of doing the same. But, if you adopt a healthy lifestyle, eat a healthy diet and take appropriate medication, you can try to mitigate (offset) your possible risk to some extent. However, you might still die of a heart attack before the age of 60, there are no guarantees. But the chances of that happening are reduced if you have followed a healthy lifestyle, and done as much as you can to offset your risk of that happening.
This offsetting of risk can be used in many situations. Most of us do it every day without thinking. If we know we are at increased risk of something, we can take action to modify our behaviour to reduce that risk – no guarantees, but it’s still the sensible thing to do.
Another example of risk reduction might be:
Suppose you find yourself at risk of being shot by an angry neighbor, you will probably take steps to reduce that risk, but you still may not be able to prevent it – you can still get shot. What you don’t say is, ‘I’m at risk of being shot by my neighbor, so I’ll do nothing about it, and hope that he misses’.
It’s the same if you know you are at increased risk of addiction – you can take extra care to avoid situations that expose you to potentially addictive activities.
Some risk factors can be avoided, but there are others that can’t.
If a close family member has an addiction, you may well have inherited an increased risk for addiction yourself. It is now thought that if you have, in fact, inherited an increased risk from a parent or grandparent, this increases your risk by about 40% .You can’t do anything to change that.
Perhaps you live in a neighborhood where drugs are everywhere, and a so-called, ‘drug culture’ exists. You might not be able to move away from this high-risk environment so you and your family are exposed to increased risk.
If you have a job that requires you to entertain socially, and you live in a culture where a drinking is often a way of life, you might find it difficult to moderate your drinking, and also be unable to change your job. This will also increase your risk.
How do I Know if I’m at Risk of Addiction?
The short answer is that everyone is potentially at risk of developing an addiction, but some people might be more at risk than others. If you consistently take drugs, or drink too much alcohol, or gamble, or play computer games for hours on end, or smoke cigarettes, all of these activities carry some risk of developing an addiction – for anyone. Even if you have no increased risk factors for addiction, you can still become addicted. But if you have increased risk factors for addiction, your chance of becoming addicted from these activities is increased as well.
So, given that everyone is potentially at risk, what everyone really needs to know is,
Am I at Increased Risk Of Developing an Addiction?
Unfortunately, there is no simple Yes/No answer to that question. It’s more complicated than that.
Assessing your degree of risk is made harder because there are many interacting factors that have influence over any one person’s individual predisposing risk. Some things we can have some control over, but other things we cannot change.
It’s important to understand that an increased risk for addiction does not distinguish between your risk for Process Addictions, such as gambling or computer game addiction, or risks for a Substance Addiction, like addiction to alcohol or street drugs. If you have increased risk of addiction, you are at increased risk from all forms of addiction.
In Part 2 of Causes and Risks of Addiction, I outline specific risks, their degree of importance, and also, what is currently known about the Causes of Addiction.
See part 2 of ‘Causes and Risks of Addiction’.
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