Lower rates of alcohol use and alcoholism among Asians and Pacific Islanders appear to be related to a genetic variation prevalent in these populations (Makimoto 1998). Specifically, Asians are more likely than Whites to have a specific variant of a gene (i.e., an allele) called the aldehyde dehydrogenase–2 (ALDH2) Lys 487 (See below). This allele causes the body to break down alcohol in such a way that a person with the allele experiences symptoms such as facial flushing, nausea, headache, dizziness, and rapid heartbeat—collectively known as the “flushing response”—after consuming alcohol.
Because of the presence of this allele, Asian populations tend to consume less alcohol and have lower levels of alcoholism than other ethnic groups (Makimoto 1998). This allele therefore may provide Asians some protection against heavy drinking and alcoholism (Yin et al. 1988; Makimoto 1998). The presence of the ALDH2 allele varies among Asian groups in the United States. In a study of college students, researchers found that 48 percent of students of Chinese ancestry had this allele, compared with 35 percent of students of Korean background (Luczak et al. 2001). The Chinese students also had a lower rate of binge drinking (7 percent) compared with the Korean students (30 percent). The specific prevalence of alcohol use and alcohol related disorders among adult Chinese American populations is not well documented.
Chimera picture of the active site ALDH2 with labeled amino acids and NAD