Research challenges belief that hangovers worsen with age

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Hey, you, over 40: Take your hand off that second glass of chardonnay.

So, think you’re going to tie one on this holiday season? Think again: It should be obvious that your age demographic requires moderation and clear liquids, whether it’s gin and vodka while drinking, or water while getting over drinking.

Or is it?

For years, health experts have believed that the older you are and the higher you fly with the champagne and beer gods, the steeper you’ll hang over the abyss (or, at the risk of being crude, the toilet bowl) the next day.

New research out of Denmark, however, challenges the notion that old age means more unpleasant after-effects — queasiness, headaches, aches, dehydration — lingering for days. Actually, the intensity of hangovers seems to diminish with age, according to a study from the University of Southern Denmark.

The study, which will be published in the February 2014 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, looked at 52,000 people between the ages of 18 and 94, and just how often they got a hangover after consuming five drinks in one sitting — also known as binge drinking.

For men ages 18 to 29, the chances were 11 times greater, the study found, compared to those age 60 and older. For women, the chances were 8 times higher among that younger age group than for those 60 and over.

The study didn’t assess the intensity of a binge drinking session, just its frequency over an average week.

There are all sorts of reasons why older people may at least think they’re suffering more than younger drinkers. The older we are, generally, the less we imbibe — so when we do drink, the brain is more sensitive to alcohol’s effects. Most alcohol is absorbed by the liver, which becomes less efficient over the years. Older people tend to take more medications, which can complicate matters. And as we age, we lose muscle mass and gain fat, and because alcohol isn’t absorbed in fat, more of it may be circulating in our bloodstream, making a bigger buzz, sooner.

People suffer the worst hangovers at age 29, but after 30 the intensity begins to decrease, as overall stamina decreases, the study found, but younger people in the Denmark study may have also consumed more alcohol in one sitting than older drinkers, said Jonathan Howland, a researcher at Boston University School of Medicine.

Mr. Howland didn’t work on this study, but he has researched the consumption of alcohol and performance for decades.

“Older and younger people drink differently,” he added. “Younger people may be chugging shots, with friends out at a bar, as opposed to having a cocktail before dinner and wine with dinner. Older people may be drinking as much as young people are but spreading it out over a longer period of time.”

Age aside, there is also a suspicion that some people are simply more resistant to hangovers, although that’s a subject that needs much more study, he said. Alcoholism may not just be about what happens on the front end, with cravings for a drink, but what happens as a consequence.

“We are very interested in the question of whether resistance to hangovers affects your long-term drinking prognosis, and whether, if you are resistant, you are more likely to heavily consume alcohol,” Mr. Howland said.

Hangovers can actually change behavior, he added. “If you’re young and you get a lot of them, you may modify your drinking practices and become more intelligent about it.”

Hangover research is a fairly obscure area, and the research out of Denmark is the first large population-based study with substantial information on hangovers, its authors claimed in a press release, noting that while tens of thousands of studies exist on alcohol’s effects, only about 200 papers about alcohol have been published.

However, there has been renewed interest in learning exactly how long it takes for cognitive performance to be restored, given that current “bottle to throttle rules” — federal safety regulations that prohibit workers from operating machines for a certain period after consuming alcohol — may not be based on the most current science.

Damage control

While hangover cures range from the sublime (more champagne, please) to the ridiculous (duck embryos), Jason Burke, a Duke University-trained anesthesiologist based in Las Vegas, said he’s come up with something that may really help: a day-after cocktail of anti-nausea medicine and supplements plus intravenous hydration administered at his clinic, Hangover Heaven. (Clients can hop on the Hangover Heaven shuttle, or his staff will make special hotel-room visits for those too far gone to get out of bed.)

“The types of hangovers we see in Las Vegas are severe, the worst on the planet. People come here to forget their woes, they get caught up in the moment and drink too much,” said Dr. Burke. While many alcohol studies pinpoint maximum drunkenness as occurring around 1 a.m., “most people in Las Vegas are at that level by 5 p.m.” he said.

Dr. Burke’s time spent in a Las Vegas hospital’s recovery room made him realize the possibilities of using post-operative anti-nausea medicine and intravenous treatments for hangovers.

Dr. Burke seems to have tapped into a market. He said he’s treated more than 10,000 people. Clients can select either the $99 Redemption Package (1 liter hydration fluid, a choice of nausea medicine, headache medicines or vitamins and antioxidants); the $159 Salvation Package, the so called “flagship package,” for major hangovers, with 1.5 liters of hydration plus a full array of nausea, headache, heartburn, vitamins and antioxidants.

Finally there is the Rapture Package “for that truly epic hangover,” with up to 2 liters of hydration, lots of the same medicine, plus 30 minutes of oxygen and “a Super B shot (similar to a B12 shot, but five times better).”

Barring that, here’s another tip: Drink high-end alcohol, which tends to have fewer impurities — “congeners,” as they’re called — which tend to cause inflammation, Dr. Burke said. (Other experts say that some people are just sensitive to the sulfites and tannins in wine as opposed to gin and vodka, which have none.)

Hangover Heaven may or may not be just what the doctor ordered — we may never know, given how little hangover research is out there, to the dismay of many scientists.

At an American Chemical Society conference last spring, Alyson Mitchell, professor and John Kinsella Chair in the department of food science and technology at University of California, Davis, cited one federal study that found companies lose $148 billion a year due to hangovers.

She argued in favor of more study, given what it might tell us about how the body’s immune, gastrointestinal and metabolic systems react to alcohol.

“We really don’t know much about a hangover, and it is an incredibly puzzling response — the symptoms only show up after all the alcohol is metabolized and gone from the body. And that in itself is amazing,” she said during a presentation. “The fact that something is the most toxic after it has been eliminated from the body [is unusual].”

Too little knowledge, perhaps, but given the toxicity of alcoholism itself — damaging careers, health and the lives of those who drink too much and their families — Mr. Howland said, “The idea of a cure for hangovers is not compatible with the mission of research institutes that are trying to get people to drink less.”

Mackenzie Carpenter; 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.

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