Don’t stop at Dry January, says UK alcohol expert who warns that hangovers really do get worse as you get older
If you think you can’t drink the way you used to, you’re not alone. An ageing body is more sensitive to alcohol than a younger one.
Dr Niall Campbell, consultant psychiatrist at Priory’s Roehampton Hospital and one of the UK’s leading alcohol addiction experts, says the idea that hangovers get worse with age is no myth - and has a lot to do with the body’s changing metabolism, and prescription medications.
His comments came after recent figures showed alcohol-related deaths among women in the UK have reached the highest rate since 2008.
There were eight deaths per 100,000 women in 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics – a similar level to when ONS records began in 2001. Death rates among men continued to be at least double that figure, at 16.8 per 100,000 – the highest since 2010, when there was an equivalent rate.
While Scotland continued to have the highest rate of alcohol-specific deaths (20.5 per 100,000 people), it is the only UK country to have recorded a statistically significant decrease since 2001, with a 21% reduction.
Deaths from alcohol misuse were highest among 60 to 64-year-olds in 2017, at 29.7 per 100,000, overtaking 50 to 54-year-olds, who had the highest rate in 2001. Broken down by sex, death rates were highest among 55 to 59-year-old women and 60 to 64-year-old men.
Dr Campbell says that older people are also more likely to experience hangovers because “you are more likely to be on medication as you get older and these medicines can alter the way your body breaks down alcohol, leaving you with a worse hangover.
“It is true to say that your body takes longer to recover from everything after your mid-twenties partly due to inflammation and chronic diseases which your immune system and liver are fighting.
“Older people tend to have more chronic diseases than younger people.
“If you add the toxic effects of alcohol and its breakdown products, acetaldehyde and ethanoic acid, all three of which are toxic to all tissues of the human body, you will experience stronger hangover symptoms such as fatigue and nausea, and put yourself at risk of damaging your organs.
“There’s a misnomer that if you are overweight, which tends to happen as you get older, you can handle alcohol more effectively. Not true. And the calories in alcoholic drinks cause weight gain. Beer bellies are not a myth.
“There is also the build-up of acetaldehyde – which happens at the mid-point when your body is metabolising alcohol. As you age, your ability to metabolise alcohol drops. That’s what you can smell on a heavy drinker’s breath the morning-after-the-night-before. Acetaldehyde is the first by-product of ethanol, and between 10 and 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself; it can remain at an elevated plateau for many hours after initial ethanol consumption. High acetaldehyde levels in heavy, steady drinkers are increasingly implicated in causing cancer.
“It’s important to remember, as the charity Cancer Research points out, that while there are plenty of tricks that people claim ‘cure’ hangovers, whether they seem to work for you or not, they do not speed up the breakdown of alcohol and do not cancel out the long-term damage done.”
The Priory Hospital in Roehampton offers treatment and support for alcohol addiction and drug addiction. It also offers a medically assisted withdrawal detoxification process for alcohol addictions. Dr Campbell says: “If you or someone that you know is struggling with an addiction, it is important to know that you are not alone; expert addiction treatment, therapy and support are available.”
Dr Campbell adds: “Dry January makes many people pause and think about their drinking habits, and where they do most of their drinking. As a concept, it’s partly based on the premise of social contagion. You’ll find more people not drinking in January than at other times. That herd mentality can be supportive.
“But if people have a serious alcohol problem, being ‘dry’ for just one month doesn’t cut it. Very often, if men and women ‘white knuckle’ it through January not drinking, they are back on the booze with a vengeance afterwards. They are not looking at the impact on their work, their relationships.
“I know compulsive drinkers who have stopped for several Januarys in years gone by, but just counted the days until February.
“They think ‘because I have stopped, I can stop anytime’. It’s rarely the case.
“At the Priory, we say that if you want to be a controlled drinker, you need to be off alcohol for three months. It takes a lot to recognise you have a problem in the first place, and then to be at social functions where other people are drinking and you’re not - that’s a massive challenge. You need to learn a new dialogue to explain why you’re not drinking, and be comfortable with it. That takes a bit of learning, longer than a month.”
About Priory Group
The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK, caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into three divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, and adult care. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health.