The question of genetics is a common one in any discussion of mental health. Problems like depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and so many others appear to be strongly linked to inheritance, with close relatives often suffering from similar illnesses.
Compulsive hoarding, or the uncontrollable desire to collect and hold onto objects to the extent that they interfere with daily life, is a relatively newly recognized disorder, and studies into its pathogenesis are just starting to pick up. As with so many mental illnesses, the roots of hoarding disorder are controversial, and whether or not the behavior can be inherited is a question with significant implications for those who suffer from it, those close to it, and those who treat it.
So, is it genetic? Can you inherit compulsive hoarding disorder from a parent? The answer is, you guessed it, complicated, and it starts with an understanding of the difference between genetic certainty and genetic tendency.
Hoarding: Predetermined vs. Predisposed
Some of what we are is genetic destiny. If your parents both have light eyes, you will have light eyes. If you're born with at least one gene for brown hair, your hair will be brown. The only way to escape it is a dye job.
And then there are inherited genes that mark a tendency -- an increased possibility over the general population that the inheritor will develop a particular behavior or condition. In the case of genetic predisposition, the outcome is not guaranteed; it is simply more likely than it is for someone without the gene. Some common examples of this are breast cancer, alcoholism, obesity and athletic ability. They run in families, but in each case and to varying degrees, the inheritor's habits and behavior may affect the outcome.
Hoarding disorder appears to fall into this category of genetic predisposition. Opinions vary on how strong that disposition is. Some experts believe genetics play a relatively small role, with environment taking center stage. In other words, if your biological father is a compulsive hoarder but you're adopted at birth, any genetic predisposition toward hoarding would be less likely to be "turned on" than if you were raised by your genetic parent.
Another big component in the development of hoarding disorder is a stressful incident, such as sexual assault or divorce. Trauma can be an instigating factor in the disease, which is often associated with anxiety. If you inherited a genetic proclivity toward compulsive hoarding and you experience a period of extreme stress, you may be more likely than someone without the gene to start practicing the behavior as a coping mechanism.
Some recent studies, on the other hand, point to a more significant role for genetics in hoarding behavior, to the extent of having isolated a specific chromosome that may be associated with hoarding. Some researchers believe this type of genetic inheritance to be a stronger factor than environment, although no one is sure whether the gene indicates a tendency toward actual hoarding or toward a contributory personality trait, such as disorganized thinking.
What is not up for debate is the malleability of the gene's outcome. Whether or not genetics play a part in hoarding, and whether or not it's a strong one, people who inherit a tendency toward the behavior are not locked into a pathologically cluttered future. Just as someone with strong athletic capacity can simply not play sports, a person who inherits a strong hoarding capacity can simply not collect.
What That Means
For the close relatives of hoarders, what does appear to be a genetic link can seem discouraging. The prospect of falling prey to the same disorder is a frightening one, especially for those who have grown up with or otherwise lived with someone suffering from the disease. It is not, however, a sure thing -- far from it -- and there are steps a person can take to dramatically reduce the risk of developing this particular mental illness.
First, awareness is key. People who are severe hoarders didn't start out that way. Hoarding typically starts small, with a few piles of stuff, and picks up either over time or else quickly as the result of a stressful incident. More often than not, they didn't see it coming. A concrete awareness of a predisposition can reduce the possibility of falling into the behavior mindlessly. At the very least, if the urge to accumulate starts to rev up, it will most likely not go unnoticed.
And then there are preventive measures, such as instituting a regular organizing/purging session. Perhaps once a month, one could target a specific room for clean-up, sorting through piles of random "stuff," organizing them, and removing and discarding useless objects. Tackling the task before it gets overwhelming can do a lot to avoid some of the particular anxiety associated with compulsive hoarding.
Even with these steps, the trait could kick in in the wake of trauma or in some generally anxiety-filled period, such as job loss or foreclosure or divorce. In that case, the trick to staving off the not-so-inevitable is to seek help quickly. Hoarding is so much easier to treat in its earliest stages than it is later on. Inherited or not, therapy, medication and behavioral training can all help to stop the disease before it takes over.
For more information on compulsive hoarding and other mental-health issues, check out the links on the next page.
- Hoarding Signs and How to Get Help
- Quiz: Hoarder or Messy?
- Hoarding Resources, Treatment and Information
More Great Links
- Anderson, Pauline. "Genetics Most Important Factor in Compulsive Hoarding." Medscape Today. Aug. 27, 2009. (June 28, 2011) http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/708049
- Collingwood, Jane. "Is Compulsive Hoarding Genetic?" PsychCentral. (June 28, 2011) http://psychcentral.com/lib/2009/the-genetics-of-compulsive-hoarding/
- Oz, Mehmet. "When does compulsive hoarding usually begin?" ShareCare. (June 28, 2011) http://www.sharecare.com/question/when-compulsive-hoarding-usually-begin
- Walsh, Peter. "Clutter Genetics." Oprah. June 8, 2007. (June 28, 2011) http://www.oprah.com/oprahradio/Clutter-Genetics