Is Native American alcoholism genetic?

Experts are not sure. But alcoholism is generally a genetic factor, and may be more so among Native American people. We review here.

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We don’t know.

Alcoholism is caused by a combination of genetic, cultural, an environmental factors. But how much a factor are our genes? And are Native Americans more at risk than other racial and ethnic groups of becoming alcoholic? We explore here.

HUGE rates of alcoholism

According to estimates from the U.S. Indian Health Service, the alcohol dependency rate is six times greater for Native Americans than for the general population. In fact, rough estimates from missions that help Native American people  have found a 60-80% lifetime prevalence rate for the development of alcohol use disorders and alcohol dependence among Native American populations. And although many people will agree that the rates of alcoholism are high, experts still don’t really know if American Indians are especially susceptible to alcohol dependence or not.

Genetic theories for alcoholism among Native Americans

The main current theories for alcoholism among American Indians focus on alcohol metabolism to try to explain why alcohol dependence rates are so high among the population. Some researchers have thought that Native Americans are predisposed to alcoholism because of differences in the way they metabolize alcohol. More specifically, researchers think that alcohol metabolism may affect the regulation of alcohol intake, because interference with production or elimination of the alcohol metabolite acetaldehyde has behavioral effects. And while studies of families, twins, and adoptees support a genetic predisposition to alcoholism may confirm this, the exact genetic code has yet to be cracked.

What researchers have found is that alcohol is broken down and eliminated differently in Native Americans than in other populations. So far, studies have found a variant of the ALDH1 enzyme that is encoded by the ALDH1A1*2 allele and a variant of the ADH1B enzyme that is encoded by the ADH1B*3 allele. However, the genes that have been identified in Native Americans are associated with a protective effect and do not explain the high rates of alcoholism in the tribes investigated.

More research is needed

Although ongoing research examines individual and tribal differences in alcohol metabolism among American Indians, the most recent finding suggest that rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems are influenced by other environmental and/or genetic factors.  Why do Native Americans drink so much?

So while people can be protected against or predisposed to alcoholism by variations in the enzymes that metabolize alcohol (i.e., alcohol dehydrogenase [ADH] and aldehyde dehydrogenase [ALDH]), the presence of these enzymes and alleles is required before scientists can declare that alcoholism is genetic for Native Americans, or not.

Questions about alcoholism?

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Reference sources: NIAAA update on alcohol metabolism
Variations in ADH and ALDH in Southwest California
Is there a genetic basis to the development of alcoholism among Native Americans?
Minorities and Genomics from the Human Genome Project
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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