As the years go by, it gets harder to shake off the negative after-effects from a night of drinking. It’s true that the symptoms associated with hangovers tend to worsen with age, and it’s not just because you have a lower alcohol tolerance from going out less. Age affects your body in various ways, and the way you process booze may be one of them.
Hangovers are fairly simple to explain - it's basically your body trying to filter out an excessive amount of toxins that didn't taste nearly as toxic when you were consuming your fifth drink the night before. Alcohol irritates the stomach lining, contributes to dehydration, and depletes glucose levels in the blood, potentially making you feel nauseous, tired, sluggish, and irritable. And there are all sorts of theories on why worsened hangovers and age go hand in hand.
The catch is that science hasn’t yet pinpointed these kinds of processes as being explicitly related to more severe hangovers that supposedly come with age. While there’s a ton of research on the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol on health, research on hangovers is limited. Studies that attempt to shed some light on whether hangovers actually worsen with age—and why—have, so far, fallen short of a definitive answer.
Even if you are doing preventative measures to alleviate hangover symptoms, many factors still appear to be involved as to why heightened hangover effects may be attributed to age.
1. Fewer liver enzymes
According to toxicology researcher Young Chul Kim1, a factor contributing to an alcohol hangover is that our liver capacity to cope with the toxicity of acetaldehyde (the toxic compound of ethanol2,3) decreases as we get older. One of the antioxidants that helps the liver deal with toxins in alcohol is called glutathione, and Kim has studied its performance in lab mice. The data from his study indicated that as age increases, glutathione generation capacity is decreased, so cells may not be recovered or repaired as rapidly.
As an example, it takes approximately one hour for your liver to metabolize one alcoholic drink. And this process works fairly efficiently when you’re younger, but, as you get older, your body’s enzyme levels decrease4. This could allow the toxins found in alcoholic beverages to linger in your system longer, leading to those nasty hangover symptoms like nausea and headaches.
2. Decreased tolerance
It could be that we drink less as we age, which reduces our overall tolerance for alcohol. Someone with the self-image of a partying twenty-something-year-old, but the lifestyle of a responsible 42-year-old may simply have lost the tolerance to handle a lot of liquor and booze. Simply put, binge drinking is not a sustainable lifestyle, especially as you age.
3. Recovery process is weaker
A real fact about aging is that it takes our bodies more time to recuperate from any sort of trauma. From a cold virus to a tough workout to, yes, drinking too much, age affects our body’s response time. This could also be due in part to our body’s ability to fight off inflammation or cell damage5 It’s not that our body doesn’t heal; it just doesn’t heal quite as quickly6
4. Body composition
Body fat, hormonal changes and even your willingness to gorge on post-bar pizza may factor into the severity of your next-day hangover headache or nausea.
For instance, when one’s body weight has increased, blood alcohol levels decrease because of its wide distribution into body mass and fat, which leads one to drink extra, unnecessary alcoholic beverages without realizing it, subsequently resulting in the generation of more toxins.
Or when one’s body weight decreases, greater alcohol intoxication results due to limited distribution to the body even after consumption of an equal amount of alcohol.
5. Hangover Perception and Memory Bias
According to a recent study at Keele University in UK7,8, you’re actually less likely to get hangovers as you age—and that’s precisely why you might feel like they’re worse.
The research found that, overall, people drank about the same amount in their late teens and twenties than they did in middle age and beyond, but there was a dip in drinking behaviors in people who were in their 30s and 40s.
Drinking alcohol tends to tail off during the 30s and 40s, which is when people are most likely to have responsibilities, such as juggling a career and kids, that take priority over regular heavy drinking. If you’re in this age range and feel like you experience severe hangovers, it could be due in part to the fact that you’re not drinking as often—higher alcohol tolerance can reduce the likelihood of having hangover symptoms.
Memory biases may also be at play. It’s possible we simply forget how bad our hangovers were when we were younger. This could be related to pain recall, like when people forget the pain of childbirth after time passes.
Additionally, when we’re younger, we have fewer commitments and are more likely to have the luxury of sleeping off a hangover. When we get older, we have various responsibilities that require us to live through the hangover.
Older people also might be more likely to be on medications, or taking supplements, which may interfere with the metabolism of alcohol.
There’s one aspect of growing older that does not age like a fine wine: hangovers. Simply put, our body just ― sadly ― isn’t used to a 21-year-old’s lifestyle anymore.