What do studies say about the legacy of parental alcohol disorder?

Updated: Sep 26, 2020

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is both a common and costly one. In 2010 alone it affected an estimated 4.1% of the global population and accounted for nearly 18 million disability-adjusted life years. It mostly affects family members.

Despite the popular belief that the offspring of AUD - affected parents experience psycho-social difficulties in adulthood, there is often limited empirical support for this perception.

Studies of parental alcohol use disorder and the likelihood of offspring marriage show mixed results. In cross-sectional analyses of a US national sample, aged from 18 to 39, parental alcohol problems were associated with a higher probability of marriage, while analyses of another US national sample, adults aged from 18+, found a lower probability of being married. Finally, in a US community sample, aged from 40+, parental alcohol use disorder was not associated with the likelihood of marriage but with marriage at an earlier age.

It is difficult to compare these studies directly to one another owing to differences in how they operationalize marital status such as current versus lifetime marriage. However, one possible explanation for these mixed results is that age-dependent patterns are obscured in cross-sectional analyses of samples that include a range of different ages.


Although it is popularly believed that parental alcohol use disorder is associated with an increased likelihood of partnering with an affected spouse, the findings are also mixed. Hall et al. found that males with alcohol use disorder, that have mothers with drinking problems, were more likely to have problem-drinking wives or wives who were abstinent. Schuckit found that daughters, but not sons, with a family history of an alcohol use disorder, were more likely to have AUD-affected spouses. In contrast, McLeod found no association between individuals’ parental histories of alcohol or drug use and their spouses’ alcohol or drug dependence. Similarly, Schuckit et al. found no elevation in parental alcohol use disorder among women who married alcohol use disorder affected men.

Sher and others suggest that inconsistencies emerging from studies of the outcomes of adult children of AUD-affected parents may be attributable to small sample sizes, restrictive sampling strategies, and imprecise measurement of parental AUD.

Hence, there is a need for adequately powered population-based samples with clear measurement to understand the legacy of parental AUD fully.

Source: Parental alcohol use disorder and offspring marital outcomes
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