As you age, eat more and guzzle water with your alcohol.
Maybe you got through your twenties drinking hard on Saturday nights and on Sunday mornings, rising early for a run or eating pancakes with another cocktail at noon.
Until one Sunday, you appreciated the word hangover in a new way as you stood poised over the toilet barfing.
Hangovers get worse with age, if you don’t change your habits. It turns out that even a 29-year-old who drinks like he’s 19 suffers more, according to a 2013 survey from the U.K. group Redemption, which promotes alcohol-free bars.
Eventually, you can’t afford to ignore the biology of drinking and how aging fits in. In brief: Your body turns alcohol into a poison called acetaldehyde. Enzymes in the body helpfully turn it into acetate, which is similar to vinegar, and you feel okay. Too much alcohol and your enzymes take longer to work. Acetaldehyde causes the symptoms we describe as a hangover — headache, nausea, and dry mouth, among other unpleasant events. The drug disulfiram (Antabuse) blocks those helpful enzymes, leading to longer hangovers that are meant to discourage alcoholics from a repeat experience.
Aging tends to slow down recovery from a drinking bout for several reasons.
We get fatter. People with more body fat suffer worse hangovers from the same alcohol consumption. That’s one reason women, who carry fat in their curves, shouldn’t try to keep up with the men at a bar. You may not even notice the slow waistline expansion if you fit in with your crowd — American adults on average gain a pound or two a year.
We retain less water. You’ve heard the advice to drink water between your shots and water before you go to bed to flood the alcohol, minimizing hangovers. You’ll need to drink more water in your thirties and forties than you did in your twenties.
We have more health problems and take more medications. Before you drink, consider what medication you’ve taken that day or will take soon. Many don’t mix well with alcohol, including sleeping pills and antidepressants. (Don’t take acetaminophen for your hangover — it’s bad for your already taxed liver, which is busy metabolizing the alcohol.) For example, you may have high triglycerides, which alcohol can aggravate.
Hangovers aren’t the only reason to slow down your alcohol intake as you age.
Alcohol is caloric, a good place to cut as part of any weight loss or maintenance plan. The list of obesity-related risks is truly depressing: diabetes, erectile dysfunction, cancer, and more.
If you have diabetes, or heart or liver issues, drinking too much could make your problem worse.
Alcohol will wrinkle you: it reduces vitamin A, which contributes to the production of collagen, the secret of elastic, young-looking skin.
Older people heal more slowly. If you fall, get into a fight, or get into even a minor car accident your injuries will be a bigger deal the older you are. Surgery is a bigger risk, too.
Alcohol lowers your immunity, making you more vulnerable to infections and viruses. Older people recover more slowly.
The consequences of bad judgment may be greater. The brain-addling effects of alcohol pile on top of the normal brain fuzz that creeps up in mid-life. You may be more mature, but you’ll also be thinking less clearly earlier in your drinking session. Let’s say you’re married and tempted to cheat. Psychologists are proving what bar-frequenters know well: a face that might seem unattractive to you sober becomes prettier under the influence. You’ll also rate your own appeal more highly. Maybe juicing romance is welcome, but be forewarned. In midlife, the effects may begin after the first stiff cocktail, not the third.
Punch keeps getting punchier. By the age of 70, here’s one rule of thumb: drink half of the amount you used to consider your tolerance zone. Two beers may have about the impact that four had at age 50. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, recommends that people over age 65 stick to no more than seven drinks a week and no more than three drinks on any one day. But if you have a health problem or are taking certain medicines, you may need to drink less or not drink at all.
December 31, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN