Why Do Hangovers Seem to Get Worse With Age?

Getting older has its benefits: you're wiser, you dress better, and people stop blaming your generation for all of society's ills. But it certainly has its share of drawbacks, too. Case in point: As a college kid, you woke up fresh as a daisy after a hard night of partying, but as a fun-loving adult, just a bar night with friends is enough to make you feel lousy. What gives?

I'll Have an Old Fashioned

Not all studies agree that hangovers are worse for older people than they are for young'uns. Both a 2013 Danish study and a 2015 study from Brown University found that young people actually reported worse and more frequent hangovers than older people. But these weren't blind, controlled trials; they just relied on self-reports from people who were allowed to drink like they normally did.

As the Brown University researchers pointed out, "older and more experienced drinkers may be more practiced at altering their drinking habits to avoid hangovers." Several rounds of cinnamon-whiskey shots may very well make the morning worse for a 40-year-old than a 21-year-old, but the 40-year-old has the sense not to drink them in the first place — or at least spread them out over time. Meanwhile, other studies have found that hangovers are relatively rare among young people.

So why can't you drink like you did when you were younger? The same reason you can't recover from exercise or injuries the way you did when you were younger: Little by little, your body's processes are becoming less efficient. (Sorry!)

Though scientists don't actually know why we get hangovers, the most likely culprits are byproducts created when your body metabolizes alcohol, such as acetaldehyde and acetate. Acetaldehyde is between 10 and 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself and can cause a number of familiar effects like sweating, nausea, and vomiting. Studies in rats suggest that the older you are, the less your body can produce the enzymes needed to break down the toxin.

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Those are the biological reasons for why age brings awful mornings after, but there are lifestyle reasons, too. With age comes responsibility, for one thing. In your twenties, you probably had the time to spend Saturday morning sleeping it off, maybe after gorging on pancakes at 2 a.m. (and food, while it doesn't actually "soak up" the alcohol, does slow down your body's absorption of it). In later decades, weekends aren't so free. You might have family obligations or work functions that force you to set a dreaded morning alarm, even though your head hit the pillow when you were three sheets to the wind.

To avoid the dreaded pounding headache, clammy skin, and waves of nausea after a night out, use age to your advantage. You're wiser than your frat kid counterparts, and you have the self-control to space out your drinks, chug plenty of water, and make sure you're drinking on a full stomach. Then wake up fresh and energized, ready to laugh at all the young folks and their dismal hangovers.

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Learn more alcohol science in "Proof: The Science of Booze" by Adam Rogers. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer October 10, 2017

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