Previous studies have shown that strong family ties can reduce the effect high-risk genes have on health – called the gene-environment interaction. But a new study suggests that the combination of gender, genetics and social integration produces different consequences for men and women when it comes to substance abuse.

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Though strong social ties could protect men with a genetic sensitivity from substance abuse, for women, the benefits of these strong ties could be overshadowed by certain costs.

Results of the study, led by sociologist Brea Perry of Indiana University, will be presented today at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco, CA.

For decades, researchers have known that gender influences the risks and protections individuals face each day, resulting in different health problems for men and women. But this latest study is unique in that it adds genetics to the gender/environment equation.

To do this, Perry and her team looked at both men and women who had a genetic sensitivity to stressful conditions.

Overall, they found that strong family and community ties reduced the men’s risk of abusing alcohol and drugs or using tobacco. However, for women with the same genetic sensitivity, factors associated with strong social ties could outweigh such benefits.

”It is likely that gene-environment interactions may operate differently for men and women, perhaps because they experience some aspects of the social world in divergent ways,” says Perry, who adds:

In families and communities, for example, women often bear more responsibility for developing and maintaining relationships and so more of the care work that is required in those contexts. We cannot assume that a social environment that is favorable for men, and thus reduces the harmful impact of a risky genotype, is also beneficial for women, or vice versa.”

Using data from the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism – funded by the National Institutes of Health – the researchers mapped genes associated with alcohol dependence and patterns of substance abuse and behavior.

The study included 4,307 adults from 1,026 families in total. Though some of these participants had substance dependence, not all of them did. In Perry’s analysis, she focused on the GABRA2 gene, which she explains is related to increased risk of substance use disorders due to sensitivity to stressful social environments.

The results of the analysis revealed that social integration can help men in particular who struggle with substance abuse – especially those who need additional emotional support to keep them from excessively drinking or using drugs.

However, although ties to family and community were positive for most women, Perry found that the demands of relationships could be overwhelming for those with a sensitivity to stress.

She adds that such women would probably benefit from stronger social services and programs – including government-subsidized child care or in-home health workers for those with ill relatives – that move some of the responsibility for care work off their plate.

“It is quite likely that any heritable health condition that is influenced by social factors, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression, might exhibit gender-specific gene-environment interactions,” Perry concludes.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggested genetics may have something to do with a nation’s level of happiness. And another study conducted in rats found that effects of stress can be passed for generations.