Why Do You Get Terrible at Drinking as You Get Older?

bad at drinking when you're old
Nina Gonzales/Thrillist
Nina Gonzales/Thrillist

Drinking is pretty much the only activity that allows otherwise average adults to semi-rationally compare themselves to professional athletes. You rely on sheer physical ability in your early 20s, hone your craft and ride out your prime in your mid-20s, see the first signs of decline in your late-20s to early 30s, become a wily veteran in your mid-to-late-30s, and resign yourself to recreational participation after you retire.

But drinking isn’t a professional sport (yet). So why should it get so much harder as you age? Why the longer, more brutal hangovers? Why so much pain after only four beers? And is there anything you can do to prolong your career?

First, the basics:

What is a hangover?

No one knows! Seriously, which is kind of crazy considering how long people have consumed alcohol. Dr. Damaris J. Rohsenow, Associate Director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University, said in an email that, rather than being a condition unto itself, a hangover is actually a collection of symptoms, most commonly "thirst, head pain, stomach distress, and feeling tired or dizzy... These do not all need the same underlying explanation."

it's tough to be an active human early in the morning after alcohol consumption.

In other words, while alcohol is the "cause" of your hangover, each symptom may have a different specific genesis -- thirst because alcohol is a diuretic and you're dehydrated, nausea because alcohol could inflame your stomach lining, and so on. Dr. Rohsenow suggests that inflammation and sleep disturbances likely play a large role in how nightmarish your morning after is.

So why do my hangovers feel worse every year?

One popularexplanation as to why hangovers get worse as you move into your late 20s and 30s is that you lose some of the enzymes required to break down alcohol from acetaldehyde to nontoxic acetate. But according to Dr. Rohsenow, acetaldehyde "is probably not one of the chemicals that affects hangover itself, because the maximum hangover intensity occurs after all acetaldehyde is gone from the blood and acetaldehyde levels do not correlate well with hangover." She's not the only one to note acetaldehyde's dubious role in hangovers.

So the articles that rely on acetaldehyde to explain changes in recovery time after a boozy night are, at best, incomplete. And yet, the office hangover of your 30s is so, so much more crushing than the still-living-with-parents hangover of a 22-year-old.

Am I actually getting more mature?

Dr. Rohsenow's research suggests that adults between the ages of 25 and 34 actually experience reduced hangover symptoms compared to people aged 15 to 24. What's more, she says, "The age differences were not due to differences in level of habitual drinking or weight or alcohol dependence, all of which could change with age. Another study... found that the relationship of amount of alcohol consumed and hangover got less as drinkers got older."

Basically, this evidence suggests that you actually get better at drinking as you move into your late-20s and early-to-mid-30s. When you find yourself struggling miserably through a Friday after having just one more post-midnight drink at the bar, it's because it's tough to be an active, attentive human being early in the morning after alcohol consumption, regardless of age. 

You're actually a savvier alcohol user; your life is just getting worse.

Think about it: 21-year-old you could just pound beers and sleep until 2pm the next day, because who cares about making it to your "Sex, Gender & the Bible" lecture. As you get more "mature," you drink water before bed, set 13 alarms, shower, and pretend you're not sweating IPA through your button-down.

While Rohsenow notes there's not yet solid research on this aspect of hangovers, she offers similar explanations, saying it's possible that "people who continue drinking frequently develop tolerance so they don’t feel the effects of alcohol as much, and they might also become tolerant to hangover as well... Older drinkers might also, due to experience, learn better how to drink in ways that make them less likely to get hungover."

So you're actually a savvier alcohol user; your life is just getting worse, what with the job and the kids and fear of death and climate change and crippling insecurity and all. Guess this is kind of a good news/bad news situation.

Is there any hope?

Well, you could always stop drinking.

Just kidding! As noted above, you're probably already making subtle changes that mitigate your misery. You can be more proactive, though, by switching up your go-to drink. The type of alcohol makes a difference in the severity of hangovers, thanks to asshole substances called congeners. Congeners occur at higher levels in dark liquors, so if you're a big whiskey drinker, you might want to consider switching to clear, distilled spirits (like vodka). Low-congener alcohols have been shown to result in more tolerable hangovers; no information could be found on how to become a participant in studies called "Intoxication With Bourbon Versus Vodka."

Of course, all this goes out the window once you hit 40 and you actually dostart to get worse at drinking. Not only does your liver have a tougher time keeping up with your social life, but alcohol may also deteriorate muscle and body mass as you age, essentially meaning getting wasted is causing you to waste away (sorry).

Aging sucks, except for the wisdom and maturity and yada yada yada boring. All you can do is go out with the class of a true professional, like Cal Ripken, Jr., and hang it up when your body tells you it's time.

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Anthony Schneck is the ageless Health Editor at Thrillist. Follow him @AnthonySchneck.