I remember when I could drink my weight in malt liquor on a Thursday night, and flit into work on Friday morning —nimble of brain and body and ready to conquer. Sometime in my mid-20s, hangovers turned into debilitating, two-day events; searing headaches became a regular side effect of weekday wine flutes. There’s been no doubt in my mind that, unless my body works differently than yours, hangovers get worse with age.
But a new study, published in the journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, has challenged my assumption.
Hangovers, and the agony they bring, set in after blood alcohol concentration (BAC) drops back to zero. Among those who drink, hangovers are a common occurrence. About three-quarters of the general population descends into a sorry state following moderate alcohol consumption.
Given how easily hangovers can reduce otherwise proficient workers into careless zombies, there’s a considerable socioeconomic cost associated with the morning-after misery. Even so, serious hangover research has only begun in the last decade, and most of it has focused on younger drinkers. Scientists at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University, however, decided to take a detailed look at hangovers in young and old drinkers. They evaluated the accuracy of existing population surveys, which suggest hangovers get less horrible as we get older.
The surveys, it turns out, didn’t lie.
Using information collected in four previous clinical trials, the Brown team analyzed self-reported drinking data submitted by 294 non-treatment-seeking drinkers between 15- and 66-years-old. Trial participants recorded their imbing stats and hangover symptoms for three months, without reducing or otherwise altering their drinking habits. The morning after drinking, they tallied up their spirit-count and used the Acute Hangover Scale to assess the physical and mental toll of their martini nights. As to evaluate comparable drinking experiences, researchers took into account how much the participants drank on average — one person’s epic binge, after all, might be another person’s Monday afternoon.
Unsurprisingly, researchers found that everyone felt more hungover when they consumed more booze. But, to my surprise, younger participants reported worse hangover symptoms than older drinkers, across both men and women.
While study was more granular than previous cross-sectional analyses, it still included a relatively limited pool of drinkers. It’s possible, as study authors noted, that the older participants represented a self-selecting and lucky group who never got that hungover in the first place, even in their formative boozing years. Conversely, maybe those of us who weren’t born to booze curb our consumption as we grow older.
Still, the next time your grandparents invite you on a bender, think twice about the offer.