Why Is It So Difficult To Recoup After Drinking As You Age?

Ever feel like your hangovers are progressively getting worse? Well maybe because they are. Your recovery process after a long night of drinking can feel like it can go on for days. The truth is as your body changes as you grow older so does its capability to deal with alcohol.

“When you’re young, you have a lot of plasticity in how you respond to things that are toxic,” said George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “You lose some of that as you get older.”

Everyone has those long nights of pounding shots with your besties. But, it can be hazardous as you age. Your body can’t handle it the way it used to.

“What used to be a normal amount of alcohol you could drink and not get overly intoxicated now changes,” explained James Galligan, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University. “Because your system doesn’t work as well [when you’re older], you’re likely to end up with higher blood alcohol levels than you would’ve when you were much younger.”

So what does that exactly mean? Here is how your body responds to alcohol when you are no longer in your 20s.


Your body Does Not Absorb Alcohol As Efficiently As It Used To

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Alcohol is broken down in a two-step process that happens in the liver, according to David Sack, the chief medical officer of Elements Behavioral Health.

“Alcohol is converted to acetaldehyde, which is responsible for a lot of the negative effects of alcohol like headaches, flushing and dizziness,” he said. It’s then converted to acetic acid, which is excreted in urine.

The system works well in younger people, Galligan said.

“But just like anything else, when you get older, things don’t work like they used to,” he added. “As people begin to get into their 60s or 70s, the enzymes that metabolize alcohol don’t work as well.”

“Some of that may be the result of the normal aging process, but part of it may be due to illness,” Sack said. “Moderate to heavy drinkers can cause injury to their liver. They have changes in the efficiency in which their liver processes alcohol.”

A recent study has shown that both the liver and the brain are more sensitive to the toxicity of alcohol as you grow older, which affects how you respond to liquor. In turn, what you normally drank when you were younger will have a greater effect when you get older, Galligan noted.


Your Daily Routine Affects How You Process Alcohol As You Age

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Body fat plays a big role in how your body processes alcohol as you age, Sack noted.

“Alcohol, unlike most other drugs, is only distributed in the water parts of the body. So if you have less water to body fat, more of the alcohol reaches the organ,” he said.

Other illnesses can also contribute to the inefficient metabolism of alcohol. Hepatitis C, for instance, can affect the liver’s ability to clear alcohol and other drugs, Sack said.

Your usage of medications can affect how you process alcohol as well, Koob said. “The elderly tend to take a lot of medications, and some can interact in a bad way with alcohol like Xanax or Valium, for instance,” he said.


How Early You Started To Drink Also Affects How You Process Liquor As You Age

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Underage drinking does play a role in how your body metabolizes alcohol, Koob said. It can also be correlated with the impairment of cognitive function.

“Excess drinking can affect the frontal cortex, which is the slowest part of the brain to mature and why they advocate against underage drinking,” he added.

And over time, heavy drinking itself can affect how you process alcohol in the future, Sack noted.

“There are people who started drinking in their 20s and 30s and are now in their 60s that tend to have more emotional problems like depression, drink more continuously and have more treatment for alcohol-related problems,” Sack said. “And there are those who start drinking when they’re older, as in their 50s and 60s, who tend to be healthier and have fewer consequences.”

Of course everyone sees the headlines of the health benefits of drinking a glass of red wine or two, which makes people think it’s okay to excessively drink. But, studies are varied and moderation is always key, Sack noted.

Even though people believe hangovers get worse as you grow older, one study found that it truly depends on how you live your life.

“The liver has a lot of excess capacity if you don’t keep injuring it,” Sack said. “It’s an amazing organ.”

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