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Do Hangovers Get Worse as We Age?

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Q. It seems like my hangovers are much worse now that I am older, 42, to the point I can’t even have one drink without feeling listless the next day. What can I do, besides drinking water while drinking alcohol, to improve the situation?

A. The real “problem” might be that you’re drinking less as you age, which reduces your tolerance for alcohol, said Lara Ray, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who researches alcoholism. Someone with the self-image of a partying twentysomething but the lifestyle of a responsible 42-year-old may simply have lost the tolerance for a lot of alcohol, she said.

“Age may be a proxy for regularity of drinking,” Dr. Ray said. “If you haven’t gone to a party for two to three weeks, it might be less about being 40 and more about your drinking history.”

Also, as we age, we lose muscle mass, replacing it with fat. The same drink will cause more intoxication in a body with a higher fat content compared to a leaner one, she said. But this tends to be true more for people over 65 than over 40, she said.

Dr. Ray suggests drinking more slowly to compensate for this change in body composition, and to drink more water or other liquids to dilute the alcohol. A quick spike in blood alcohol levels followed by a quick drop make hangovers more likely, she said, so avoiding those sudden changes should help.

The biological basis of hangovers is still unclear, said Dr. Marc Schuckit, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. Some people think being hung over is a mild form of alcohol withdrawal; others think hangovers are caused by dehydration or an imbalance of electrolytes like sodium, potassium or magnesium, he said.

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