It is estimated that about three-quarters of the population drink alcohol. Of this number, about 10% will find that their alcohol consumption leads to serious problems involving their health, work, finances, and relationships with family and friends. When a person uses alcohol despite apparent harm to their health and well-being, it is called alcohol abuse (or dependence), or alcoholism.
Men are five times more likely than women to develop alcoholism. However, the incidence of alcoholism among women has increased in the past 30 years.
Alcoholism is a medical condition. While the exact cause of alcoholism is unknown, research has shown increasing evidence that susceptibility to it may be inherited and the risk of developing this medical condition rises significantly in families with relatives (in particular, parents and siblings) who are dependent on alcohol.
Additional risk factors include having a psychiatric condition such as schizophrenia, depression, or anxiety disorders. Poverty, social isolation, and shyness may also be risk factors.
In addition, how one's body processes alcohol can affect the risk of developing a dependence on alcohol. Research has shown that people who need comparatively more alcohol to achieve an effect are more likely to become alcohol dependent.
All drugs affect a "reward mechanism" in the brain. If a person feels good each time they use a drug, it tends to make them want to use the drug again. This common feature could explain why people abuse drugs, including alcohol. As with most drugs, though, if you use them regularly, your body tends to require increasing amounts of the substance to achieve the same effect. This is called tolerance, and it may be the final factor that contributes to the development of drug or alcohol dependence.