What are Risk Factors for Developing an Addiction?

Updated: Sep 10


Risk factors are characteristics that make an individual more susceptible to substance use disorders.  


The age someone starts using alcohol or drugs is a significant risk factor. The earlier someone starts using substances, the greater their chances of developing a substance use disorder, and the more severe their illness is likely to be. Ninety percent of Americans with a substance use disorder began using substances before the age of 18.[1]


Research also suggests that genetic factors account for about half of a person’s likelihood of developing a substance use disorder. While we can’t change our genetics, knowing about a family history of addiction should empower us to make different decisions about our substance use.


Other factors that put a person at risk for an addiction include parental substance misuse, trauma, and a lack of social attachments. These are called individual factors and they’re part of the “big three” in areas of risk -- individual, environmental and genetic. Environmental factors include high drug availability, poverty, a lack of laws and enforcement, and social norms.


For every risk factor, there is a protective factor to counter-balance it. Strengthening the protective factors that we can control is important for both preventing the illness in other family members and relatives as well as supporting an individual with a substance use disorder in recovery.







  1. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2011). Adolescent substance use: America's #1 public health problem.




An excerpt from Navigating Addiction and Treatment: A Guide for Families, Addiction Policy Forum, 2020.




A Note From Addiction Policy Forum


Substance use disorders get worse over time. The earlier treatment starts the better the chances for long-term recovery. Many families are wrongly told to “wait for rock bottom” and that their loved one needs to feel ready to seek treatment in order for it to work. The idea that we should wait for the disease to get worse before seeking treatment is dangerous. Imagine if we waited until stage 4 to treat cancer. Decades of research has proven that the earlier someone is treated, the better their outcomes—and that treatment works just as well for patients who are compelled to start treatment by outside forces as it does for those who are self-motivated to enter treatment.


Help is Here


If you have questions or need to speak with someone for support, call or text (833) 301-4357 today. Our staff of trained counselors at Addiction Policy Forum provides free, confidential support to anyone in need of help with a Substance Use Disorder issue, including patients, families and healthcare providers.


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