red face drinking alzheimers
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
February 1, 2024 ·  4 min read

Study: If Your Face Goes Red When Drinking, You May Be More Prone To Alzheimer’s Disease

Everyone has that one friend whose face goes bright red after just a couple of drinks. Maybe that friend is actually you. Either way, this seemingly harmless condition can be frustrating. You can’t have even one glass of wine without turning into a bright red tomato, and in every picture, you take during a night out with friends you look like you had a mishap at the tanning salon.

This affliction, affectionately named “Asian Glow” due to its prevalence among people of East Asian descent, may not be as harmless as once thought. Researchers from Stanford University have found that the gene mutation responsible for the “Asian Glow” may contribute to Alzheimer’s Disease [1].

What Causes the Red Flush?

The culprit is an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2, or ALDH2 [1]. ALDH2 is the second enzyme of the major oxidative pathway of alcohol metabolism. In short, it is a key player in how our bodies process alcohol [2].

Some people, however, carry a mutated form of the enzyme called ALDH2*2. This mutation significantly decreases the enzyme’s activity, which results in a buildup of acetaldehyde, which is a toxic byproduct of alcohol metabolism. This, in turn, causes the skin to become flushed red when they drink alcohol [1,3].

ALDH2*2 is the most frequent mutation found in humans, and it is estimated that approximately eight percent of the world’s population, or 560 million people, carry the allele (mutated gene) [4].

How is ALDH2*2 Connected to Alzheimer’s?

ALDH2 has a protective effect on the cardio-cerebral vascular system and the central nervous system (aka- your brain, your heart, and the blood vessels that carry oxygen between them) [5].

The problem with the gene’s mutation, ALDH2*2, as mentioned previously, is that it does not have the same ability to break down acetaldehyde. To make things worse, cells that contain the mutated gene have more free radicals and 4-HNE, a byproduct of cell break-down [1,6].

“Free radicals are formed when we have a fever, when we have chronic diseases, when we are stressed; these free radicals form toxic aldehydes, and the job of ALDH2 is to remove these toxic chemicals,” explained Daria Mochly-Rosen, Ph.D., professor of chemical and systems biology [1].

Once these aldehydes begin to accumulate, they damage the mitochondria, which is the part of the cell that is supposed to get rid of them. This results in reduced mitochondrial activity, an increase in free radical formation, and ultimately death to neurons [1].

Neurons are the communicators in your body. They are the cells in your brain and nervous system that are responsible for receiving sensory input from the external world (aka- touch, taste, smell, sight), for sending commands to our muscles and basically relaying signals between all of our organs and tissues. Their interactions are extremely important because they essentially define who you are as a person [7].

When a neuron dies, it is lost forever [8]. Alzheimer’s Disease occurs when certain proteins build up in the neurons in the neocortex and hippocampus of your brain. This build-up eventually leads to cell death. These are the parts of the brain that control memory [9].

Normally, ALDH2 protects cells from free-radical damage, but ALDH2*2 does not, putting the individual who carries that gene at a much higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life [1].

ALDH2*2 and Other Diseases

Alzheimer’s is not the only concern for carriers of this mutated gene. Because of the significantly reduced protective effect of ALDH2*2, people who carry this gene are more susceptible to the carcinogenic effect of alcohol. Studies have found that these people have a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer and head and neck cancer [10].

More Research is Needed

Mochly-Rosen’s findings suggest that alcohol and ALDH2 may have a role in Alzheimer’s Disease, but more work is needed with human studies to determine whether or not people with the ALDH2*2 mutated gene who drink alcohol develop Alzheimer’s Disease at a higher-than-average rate [1].

It turns out, due to their lower tolerance, often people who carry the mutated gene report lower levels of alcohol consumption, thus protecting them in a way from developing a drinking problem [11].

More research is needed in this area of study, however since we already are aware of the damaging effects of alcohol in general, it is best for not only the people who carry this gene but for the entire population, to moderate how much they drink.

Read More: Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease Starts With These 8 Steps