As we get older, there are a few key reasons why we may get drunk faster than when we were younger. Some of the major factors include changes in body composition, decreasing alcohol metabolism rates, and differences in drinking habits and behaviors.
Changes in Body Composition
One of the biggest reasons we get drunk faster as we age is changes in body composition. As we get older, our bodies tend to have higher fat percentages and lower muscle mass compared to when we were younger. Alcohol is water-soluble, so it distributes itself more in watery tissues like muscle and less in fatty tissues. With less muscle and more fat as we age, alcohol is more concentrated in our bodies and we feel the effects sooner.
Additionally, as we age our bodies tend to have less total body water. Body water dilutes alcohol in our system, so with less water the alcohol we drink becomes more concentrated. These changes in muscle, fat, and water composition as we get older mean that the same amount of alcohol creates a higher blood alcohol concentration.
Decreasing Alcohol Metabolism
Another factor is that as we age, we metabolize and eliminate alcohol more slowly. Our livers produce an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase that breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde. As we age, the liver produces less of this enzyme and works less efficiently at metabolizing alcohol. The acetaldehyde then needs to be broken down by an enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, and aging also reduces the speed and efficiency of this enzyme.
With slower alcohol metabolism at multiple steps, more alcohol stays active in our bloodstream for longer. This means the effects of intoxication occur faster and take longer to wear off.
Differences in Drinking Habits
In addition to biological changes, drinking habits tend to change as we transition into middle age and beyond. Retirement, decreased obligations, boredom, loneliness, or loss of a spouse can all contribute to increased drinking in older adults. Health issues that cause pain or mobility challenges can also increase alcohol consumption. Older adults may drink more frequently or consume more drinks than when they were younger. With higher volumes of alcohol intake at each sitting, intoxication happens more quickly.
Older adults also may sip drinks more slowly, ingesting alcohol steadily over a longer time period. While this may seem better than drinking more quickly, a consistent steady stream of alcohol still results in high blood alcohol levels. Quickly gulping drinks allows the liver some time to metabolize in between, instead of being overwhelmed with an uninterrupted flow of alcohol.
Tips for Safer Drinking with Age
If you notice yourself getting drunk faster than you used to, here are some tips to help ensure safer drinking:
- Pace yourself – sip drinks slowly and be sure to take breaks between each drink.
- Drink plenty of water – staying hydrated helps dilute alcohol’s effects.
- Eat before and while drinking – food in the stomach slows alcohol absorption.
- Set a drink limit – know your personal limit and stick to it.
- Avoid drinking on an empty stomach – eat food before imbibing.
- Scale back overall consumption – consider cutting back your weekly/monthly alcohol intake.
Being aware of how aging changes alcohol metabolism and drinking smarter can help prevent unwanted intoxication. But if in doubt, it is healthiest to keep alcohol use to a minimum as we get older.
The Science: How Aging Impacts Alcohol Metabolism
Now let’s take a deeper dive into the science behind why we metabolize alcohol differently as adults than when we were younger. There are several biological mechanisms at play that make alcohol hit faster and harder.
Decreasing Alcohol Dehydrogenase Levels
As mentioned earlier, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) is an enzyme produced in the liver that begins the initial step of metabolizing the alcohol we drink. ADH converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is itself toxic. Younger people have higher levels of ADH, so they can break down alcohol more quickly and efficiently.
As we age, the liver produces less ADH and the levels of this enzyme in the body decline. With less ADH available, alcohol takes longer to metabolize into acetaldehyde. More alcohol builds up in the bloodstream and brain tissue, creating faster intoxication.
Reduced Acetaldehyde Metabolism
The acetaldehyde resulting from ADH acting on alcohol needs to be further broken down before the body can eliminate it. This next step is performed by the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). Like with ADH, aging leads to decreased efficiency and activity of ALDH. So once alcohol is converted to acetaldehyde, this toxic compound lingers longer when we are older.
Having higher levels of circulating acetaldehyde adds to alcohol’s impairing effects. Genetic differences in ALDH efficiency also contribute to how quickly different racial groups metabolize alcohol.
Declining Liver Volume
Not only do enzyme levels decline, but the liver actually shrinks with age. Liver volume decreases by an average of 3.5% each decade once we reach age 40. The liver is the primary organ responsible for metabolizing alcohol and eliminating it from our system. A smaller liver means a reduced capacity to process alcohol and clear it from the blood.
Increasing Body Fat Percentage
As we move from young adulthood into middle age and beyond, body fat increases while muscle mass decreases. Women’s body fat percentage increases until about age 60, while men’s fat mass keeps increasing into their 70s or 80s. Alcohol is water-soluble, so it easily diffuses into watery muscle tissue but less readily into fatty tissues. More fatty tissue and less muscle means it takes less alcohol to accumulate to intoxicating levels in the bloodstream.
Total Body Water Content Reduction
Total body water decreases with age, especially in men older than 60. Having less fluid volume makes it harder to dilute the alcohol consumed. Alcohol becomes more concentrated when there is less water available in tissues to disperse it throughout the body. Even mild dehydration exacerbates this issue.
Changes in Gastric Metabolism
The stomach itself metabolizes a small portion of the alcohol we ingest before it even makes it into the bloodstream and liver. An enzyme called gastric alcohol dehydrogenase acts on alcohol as soon as it is imbibed. Like with the liver enzymes, gastric alcohol dehydrogenase declines with age. Having lower levels of this stomach enzyme means less early metabolism of alcohol before reaching the blood, contributing to faster intoxication as we get older.
Aging impacts alcohol metabolism on multiple biological levels. Our liver produces less alcohol dehydrogenase, we metabolize acetaldehyde slower, our liver shrinks in size, body fat increases, muscle decreases, total body water declines, and gastric enzymes diminish. All these age-related changes combine to make a given amount of alcohol create a higher blood alcohol level that sets in faster and lasts longer.
Knowing how aging biologically alters alcohol absorption and metabolism can help us make smarter drinking choices. Being aware of how many drinks it takes to reach your personal limit and staying hydrated are especially important as we get older. While getting drunk faster now compared to when you were younger can be inconvenient or frustrating, it does give us good reason to keep alcohol consumption in careful moderation as we age.
|Drinks to Reach Legal Limit
|Younger Adults (20s)
|Middle Age (40s-50s)
|Older Adults (60+)
This table summarizes how aging impacts the number of drinks it takes to exceed the legal blood alcohol limit for driving. With less body water, slower metabolism, shrinking livers, and other factors, it takes significantly fewer drinks to become legally intoxicated once we reach our 60s and beyond compared to when we were younger.
Understanding this can help us make positive choices about how much to drink at different ages. As we get older, it becomes especially important to be aware of our limits, count our drinks, and stop drinking earlier to avoid unwelcome intoxication.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do hangovers get worse with age?
Hangovers tend to get worse as we get older for several reasons:
- Reduced alcohol tolerance – lower doses make us intoxicated faster
- Dehydration – alcohol is dehydrating, and older adults already tend toward dehydration
- Poor sleep quality – alcohol disrupts sleep, which is already lighter and more fragmented with age
- Gastrointestinal issues – alcohol irritates the GI tract, and GI function declines with age
- Medication interactions – older adults take more meds that can interact with alcohol
Are there health benefits to moderate drinking?
There is some research showing potential health benefits of moderate alcohol intake, such as reduced risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. However, these potential benefits seem to decline after age 65 and are outweighed by increased risks like falls, medication interactions, and cognitive impairment. Moderation is key, but avoidance is likely healthiest for older adults.
Can medications make me get drunk faster?
Yes, some common medications in older adults can definitely increase the rate of alcohol intoxication. Sedatives, opioids, antidepressants, blood pressure medications, and even over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol all impact alcohol metabolism. Combining alcohol with medications should always be done cautiously.
Should older adults avoid alcohol completely?
Due to increased intoxication rates and health risks, many experts recommend older adults avoid alcohol entirely. However, moderate intake (1 drink per day for women, 2 for men) may be safe for some. Drinking size should be reduced – no more than 12oz of beer, 5oz of wine, or 1.5oz of spirits. Avoidance is the healthiest approach.
What drinking habits promote safety for older adults?
Some tips for safer drinking as we age include: limiting intake to 1-2 drinks, drinking slowly, alternating alcohol with water, eating before/while drinking, having no more than 14 drinks per week, avoiding binge drinking, planning for alternate transportation, disclosing medications to doctors, and avoiding alcohol when taking medications that interact.