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Claim that hangovers get worse with age needs context

There is proof that age decreases the body’s ability to process alcohol. But there are a variety of factors that can cause bad hangovers, regardless of age.

Jan. 1 is National Hangover Day, and with New Year’s Eve and other holidays in full swing, many people across social media are sharing their tips and tricks to combat the effects for those who may have drunk too much alcohol. One of the most common responses echoed for years, including across pop culture and social media is that hangovers get worse as you get older.

THE QUESTION

Do hangovers get worse with age?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This needs context.

This claim needs context. Yes, studies show that your body's ability to process alcohol gets less efficient as you age. Key body functions that help metabolize alcohol, like liver enzymes and total body water weight, tend to decrease with age. But other factors – like how much you drink and what you’re drinking – also play a role in how bad your hangovers are.

WHAT WE FOUND

While there are a variety of factors that can impact how severe your hangover is  – like overall hydration levels and how frequently you're exposed to alcohol –  it is true that certain biological processes that metabolize alcohol can decrease as we age. 

One of those key factors is liver enzymes, which help break down alcohol in our bodies. Experts like Dr. Emmanuel Emenike, who studies internal medicine at UCLA Medical Center, say the older we get, the less efficient enzyme production is, leading the impacts of heavy drinking to take longer for our body to sort through in comparison to when we’re younger.

“As we age, the organs in our body that are responsible for the breakdown of products that we take, start to slow a bit compared to our younger self, and we see this in the crediting clearance of the kidney,” Emenike told VERIFY.

“There's also an age-related decline in the rate at which the liver, which is the main detoxifier of the body, handles substances such as alcohol,” he continued. “But in addition, the overall amount [of alcohol intake] tends to go down as we age. So the volume in which the external alcohol is dissolved gets lower, so you have a more concentrated effect by introducing alcohol into your system.”

So, if a 25-year-old person and a 55-year-old person were to drink three margaritas with the same alcohol content at the same pace, who would feel the sting more? Emenike said more than likely, it would be the 55-year-old. 

“If I were a betting man, I'd certainly bet on the 25-year-old recovering faster, all things being equal. The reason being that the younger person has organs that are more efficient, has blood flow that is understandably faster and reaches more areas and also has the ability to have his tissues, which are more sensitive, clear the toxin much faster than the older person. We should also understand that older people as you age, unfortunately, there are other comorbidities that may show up either diagnosed and or undiagnosed, which could factor in,” said Emenike.

Dr. Jesus Chavarria is a researcher at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and has spent years studying some of the patterns of addiction with a specialty in alcohol and enablers.

Chavarria told VERIFY that studies on the impact and direct causes of hangovers are still developing, with more research needing to be done to draw conclusions. Behavioral and environmental factors also play a role in how often we drink, which can alter the way we measure hangovers and why it’s not always a one-size-fits-all answer.

“We know that one of the biggest predictors of hangover isn't even the level of intoxication you are, it's the level of subjective intoxication,” he told VERIFY. “What some researchers found is that no matter how much you drink, if you drink more than your usual amount, your likelihood of experiencing a hangover and the severity of it goes up.”  

Melissa Majumdar, a registered dietitian and nutritionist based out of Atlanta, agrees that there are more factors at play than just age and liver metabolism. Lack of proper sleep is also a contributor to feeling next-day sickness, as alcohol consumption can disrupt a normal REM cycle, and people often stay up later when they drink.

“I think when we look at a hangover, research is showing that there's not one reason we get a hangover. So that's where I would encourage the consumer of alcohol, to think about all those factors, and not rely on a pill the morning after or not blame age entirely,” Majumdar said.

Research from Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic says symptoms of your hangover can be caused by dehydration. People who are drinking can urinate more often, causing dehydration, thanks to a hormone called vasopressin. Sweating or vomiting can also be caused by dehydration. Because alcohol is a diuretic, it pulls water out of our system, Majumdar said. She recommends having water after every drink, to ensure hydration and also slow down how fast you’re drinking.

What you’re drinking and how much you’re drinking greatly impacts the harshness of your hangover. Clear alcohols, like vodka and gin, tend to cause less severe hangovers than darker ones like whiskey or red wine.

“The main form of alcohol in alcoholic beverages is ethanol, but the darker liquors contain chemically related compounds including methanol,” Harvard Health reports. “The same enzymes process ethanol and methanol, but methanol metabolites are especially toxic, so they may cause a worse hangover.”

Chavarria agrees that dark-colored drinks tend to contain high amounts of those compounds, also known as congeners. Congeners are substances in a drink, besides the desired alcohol, that get produced during fermentation and can sometimes include other chemicals, acting as a sort of byproduct that can react poorly in your body.

Other solutions our experts say work include making sure to eat carbohydrates, as drinking can lower your blood sugar levels. Drinks packed with electrolytes can replenish you quickly, and developing research has shown some positive correlation between diets with Zinc and B12, although more data is needed.

“Anytime the diet diuresis is happening, it's not just pulling out water, but pulling out electrolytes," Majumdar said. “So replacing those electrolytes with an electrolyte-rich drink, which could even be an over-the-counter sports drink or a soup broth, then that may be beneficial.”

If you’ve done all the above and still are feeling pretty nasty, don’t reach for the Tylenol. 

“Tylenol by itself is fine, it's a good medication, but the fact that it has acetaminophen in it is extra hard on the liver,” Dr. Chavarria warned. “So those two substances combined can do some serious damage, and, you know, really lead to liver failure if you're not careful.”

Instead, opt for non-acetaminophen options, like Advil. 

No matter what you do to cope, all of our experts agree that creating healthy solutions are crucial for dealing with alcohol long term. Quick “remedies” like “drinking the hair of the dog,” or having a drink the morning after, can lead to unhealthy behaviors like alcohol dependence. And make sure to reach for water, no matter how old you are.

More from VERIFY: Yes, alcohol sales have increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic

    

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