Do hangovers really get worse as you get older?

We asked an expert

You drink, you drink, you drink and then somehow, you get up, shake it off, and get on with your life. Remember when drinking was like that, when you were young and invincible and you hadn’t really thought through the meaning of student debt?

That was nice wasn’t it?

That debt isn’t going anywhere (not on this wage) and nor do hangovers. In fact, both seem to get worse the older you get. But how true is that for hangovers? Is there a scientific reason why they feel worse when you’re 25 than they did when you were 17?

There actually isn’t, because hangovers do not change at all when you get older. At least that’s what Dr Richard Stephens argues. Dr Stephens, a senior lecture in Psychology at Keele University and the author of Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, about the science of feeling shit the morning after the night before. He’s published 13 papers on different aspects of hangovers and is a founding member of the Alcohol Hangover Research Group.

The most common conversation I have about hangovers – and one of the most Googled questions about hangovers – is this notion that they get worse the older a person gets. How true is this? 

There isn’t much data available on this question. The most informative study is one that I authored. It was done in Denmark, where I was collaborating with some researchers. It was a massive study with over 50,000 respondents of all ages.

It included a questionnaire on hangovers, which is incidentally the only way we can really measure them: by asking people questions about the symptoms of theirs. We can’t draw blood and say you have such and such hangover. Self-reporting is how we find out about them.

This study asked respondents how many hangovers they’d had over the previous 12 months. It allowed us to compare across different age boundaries how often people got hangovers.

What the survey showed is that actually, hangovers are a young person’s problem. If we start off with the oldest people in the sample, the over 60s, the next decade, the 50-60 year-olds, are twice as likely to suffer from hangovers as the over 60s. The 40-50 year-olds were twice as likely again, and it keeps going like that.

So hangovers don’t get worse as you get older?

Well, this is frequency. You’re asking about severity, which is a slightly different thing. But in terms of who gets hangovers, it’s definitely younger people, not older people.

What you’d want to ask is, if you took a younger person and an older person and gave them the same amount of alcohol, what kind of hangover would they have the next day? At the moment there isn’t any data on this. We just don’t know.

Anecdotally, older people think that hangovers are much worse now than when they were kids. I doubt whether we could ever run a study to prove it. I’m sure it would show that hangovers get worse with age. I think it has more to do with forgetting how severe hangovers were at a young age and maybe being less able to put up with stuff as you get older.

This doesn't get worse with age

This doesn’t get worse with age

So you’d argue that it’s a psychological thing?

My guess is that it’s a psychological thing, yes. If you got people into the lab who’d been drinking identical amounts the night before from all different age bands I don’t think you would see a difference. That’s just my hunch. There isn’t any evidence for hangover severity effects at different ages.

I had done some reading in preparation for this which suggested that as people age, the enzymes they use to metabolise alcohol don’t work quite as well, and that might be why hangovers might get worse.

Well yeah, lots of things change as you get older. But we don’t actually know if hangovers get worse. So it really is a matter of speculation as to whether changes in enzyme metabolism rates affect it.

Would you say the same for changes in body fat as well?

What do you mean?

I read that the higher your body fat percentage, the lower your body-water ratio…which leads to a higher blood alcohol content. Basically body fat plays a role in hangover severity and people tend to get heavier as they get older.

Yup. When people do alcohol research they wouldn’t give everybody the same amount of alcohol. They give people a dose based on body weight. They do this to account for water volume. If you’re big, five units will be more diluted in your system than if you’re small. What you say there sounds plausible, a higher proportion of fat does influence dilution.

There are a lot of interesting ideas around about who gets hangovers. A paper came out in 2008 which suggested that 23 per cent of people don’t get hangovers, no matter how much they drink. That was based on reviewing lots of different studies of hangover.

What was the reason for that? 

The explanation for it was essentially – “lucky them, they don’t get hangovers”.

A more recent study from last autumn looked back over data like when a person began drinking, how much they drank, when they stopped, their height, their weight, their gender and so on, and you could retrospectively measure the blood alcohol level they would have reached at the end of the drinking session. They came up with this figure of 0.10 per cent. If you drink and stay under 0.10 per cent you wont get a hangover. If you go over it, you most likely will.

It’s not just the quantity of alcohol, you also need to take into account the time taken drinking as well. People might think of themselves as quite seasoned drinkers and yet, because they drink a lot over a long period of time, their blood alcohol level doesn’t get over that 0.10 per cent. They’re not drinking enough to get into that hangover bracket.

Older people might think of themselves as experienced drinkers who no longer get hangovers, might have forgotten what it was like when they drank much more when they were younger.

Which suggests that older people who say they’re immune to hangovers are not drinking the same concentrations of alcohol they used to. 

Perhaps I’m saying more the converse of that, people who are older, who do get a bad hangover because they drink loads, have kind of forgotten how drinking works.