Ethnic Susceptibilities to Alcohol
Extreme differences in alcoholism rates have been found among various ethnic groups. For example, Jews and Italians have low alcoholism rates, about 1 per cent, while at the other extreme, Native Americans have extraordinarily high rates, somewhere around 89-90 per cent. Once again, physical factors – not psychological, social, or cultural – explain these different ethnic susceptibilities to alcohol.
Geographical alcoholism rates in the UK
In a recent survey, England recorded the highest proportion of adults who said they drank alcohol in the previous week (57.8%), followed by Scotland (53.5%) and then Wales (50.0%), the English regions. Binge drinking is more prevalent in the North West and least common in the South East.
Research in ethnic predisposition to alcoholism
Dr Bert Vallee and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School conducted extensive studies on the biochemical and genetic aspects of alcoholism. They isolated fifteen different forms of the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) liver enzyme and discovered that the number and variety of these enzymes vary widely from person to person. The complex patterns appear to be genetically controlled, and different racial groups have a typical variation of the number and type of these “isoenzymes.” Vallee suspects that each combination of isoenzymes reacts with alcohol differently and determines the person’s specific physiological response. Flushing, nausea, violent behaviour, sleepiness, and hyperactivity are probably caused by the drinker’s specific grouping of isoenzymes.
Vallee’s findings help to explain the abundance of research showing different physiological reactions to alcohol among various ethnic groups.
Researchers have also found higher levels of acetaldehyde, alcohol’s highly toxic breakdown product, in Orientals than in Caucasians after drinking alcohol. These high acetaldehyde levels are probably the result of enzyme deficiencies; the flushing and nausea that result could explain why Orientals tend to drink sparingly or not at all.
Another interesting finding of recent research is that there is a direct relationship between the length of time an ethnic group has been exposed to alcohol and the rate of alcoholism within that group. Jews and Italians have had access to large amounts of alcohol for over 7,000 years, and their alcoholism rate is meagre. Alcohol was introduced in quantity to the northern European countries, including France, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries, about 1,500 years ago, and the rates of alcoholism are relatively higher in these regions. Native Americans, affected by very high alcoholism rates, did not have ample supplies of alcohol until approximately 300 years ago.
Length of exposure to alcohol
Given the fact alcoholism is a hereditary disease, these differences make sense. It means that the longer an ethnic group is exposed to alcohol, the lower its susceptibility to alcoholism. This relationship is consistent with the principle of natural selection, whereby those people with a high genetic susceptibility are eliminated over many generations, resulting in a lower vulnerability rate for the entire group. People with a low predisposition to alcoholism survive and pass on their low susceptibility. Thus, the rate of alcoholism among high susceptibility groups such as Native Americans should lower significantly over time if they continue to drink!
Interbreeding among ethnic groups will also have a dramatic effect on alcoholism rates. If ethnic groups with high predisposition rates interbreed with ethnic groups with a lower susceptibility, the alcoholism rates for both groups will change. It has been observed that alcoholism rates among Jews and Italians are rising steadily as they increasingly interbreed with people with a higher vulnerability to alcoholism.
Susceptibility is complex
The scientific evidence indicates an interplay of various hereditary, physiological – metabolic, hormonal, and neurological – which together and in tandem determine an individual’s susceptibility to alcoholism.
It would be a mistake to simplify the interactions in the body, making it appear that one specific gene, one enzyme, or one hormone is solely responsible for a chain of events leading straight to physical dependence and addiction. For instance, a slight difference in the number or type of liver enzymes could alter a person’s drinking patterns, preferences, and problems.
While we will discover additional predisposing factors to alcoholism, abundant knowledge already exists to confirm that alcoholism is a hereditary, physiological disease and fully account for its onset and progression. It is also established that some ethnic groups are more prone than others.
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