As the nation kicks off Alcohol Awareness Month, new research has come to light. It suggests that in addition to the stigma associated with alcoholism, African Americans suffer from a genetic predisposition to greater negative effects of alcohol consumption.
Tamika Zapolski, assistant professor of psychology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), recently examined a paradox in African-American drinking. She found that despite African Americans reporting an initiation to drinking at an older age, lower rates of use, and lower levels of use in nearly all age groups, they still encountered higher levels of problems related to alcohol when compared to whites.
“So much research has compared drinking habits and effects between African Americans and European Americans, but no one is truly investigating the reasons,” Zapolski said. “Understanding the reasons for these differences can ultimately improve diagnoses and intervention plans.”
Zapolski posits that genetic, historical, and sociocultural factors, including cultural norms with religious beliefs and societal disapproval, make African Americans more likely to abstain from drinking and drink less than other groups. So why do Blacks encounter more negative consequences and greater risks for alcoholism or other alcohol problems?
According to Zapolski, and others including Drs. Denise M. Scott and Robert E. Taylor, there exists a number of genetic variants of ADH and ALDH genes in African Americans that account for a higher rate of alcohol metabolism. This means that liquor breaks down quicker, is more potent, and has a greater effect in smaller amounts in their consumption. It also means a reduced likelihood of a family history of alcoholism and a greater likelihood of alcohol related chronic conditions such as cirrhosis.
“In plain English, the data is saying that liquor is poison to some of our bodies, just like ingesting arsenic,” said Wendell Carby, a recovering alcoholic with 20 years’ sobriety. “I took my first drink as a freshman in college and was a drunk before the semester ended. It was like kryptonite to my body, but I couldn’t stop drinking even after it started making me ill.”
Carby said the addiction was so swift and all-encompassing – creating damage in his nerves, stomach, and liver – that he had little time to brace himself for the financial difficulties and failed relationships that lay ahead. It was only when he began experiencing blackouts that Carby sought help.
With growing concern over the prevalence of heavy drinking among African-American youth, Carby believes national campaigns should focus more attention on steering young adults away from alcohol. The rate of binge drinking (drinking five or more drinks on a single occasion for men) among African Americans ages 12 and up was 20.1 percent – compared with the national average of 22.9 percent. Similarly, African Americans aged 12 to 20 in 2013 reported past-month alcohol use at a rate of 17.8 percent, compared with the national average of 22.7 percent.
“Our young people need to understand that alcohol is dangerous at any level because some of us are wired to become drunks and have to fight ‘putting the bottle down’ for the rest of our lives. The message should be the same as it was with crack in the ‘90s, ‘Just say no,’” Carby said.
Alcohol intoxication can be harmful or risky for a variety of reasons: impaired brain function resulting in poor judgment, reduced reaction time, a loss of balance, coordination, motor skills, or slurred speech, as well as increased risk of certain cancers, stroke, and liver diseases (e.g., cirrhosis).