If you’ve ever had a night of heavy drinking, you know that the morning after is rough—you probably woke up with a headache, body aches and perhaps a queasy stomach. Even so, most people pop a pain-reliever and power through it. But the unpleasant effects of that hangover may not go away when the headache does.
Recent discovery: Even after alcohol leaves the bloodstream, a person’s cognitive (thinking) skills—including memory, concentration and coordination—often remain diminished, according to research from the UK. This means that those everyday activities like driving and decision-making at work may still be impaired after you thought the hangover was behind you.
To investigate the effects of alcohol, the researchers combed through 19 previous studies that tested people’s ability to think and function after a night of heavy drinking. Some of the study participants had been given specific amounts of alcohol in a laboratory setting, and others were asked to come in after a typical night out with their drinking buddies. The final analysis included more than 1,100 people—including those who did not drink and those who had boozed it up the night before but were no longer legally too drunk to drive (they all had a blood-alcohol level of less than 0.02%—the legal limit in the US is 0.08%).
Study results: Overall, when assessed the next day, the people who had been drinking had poorer attention, memory and dexterity skills. A few of the studies even included a driving simulation, which found that the drinkers’ ability to drive was still impaired a day later, even though they were legally allowed to drive. Caveat: The researchers did not consider the other adverse effects of heavy drinking—for example, some of the cognitive impairment could have been caused by the things that often accompany drinking such as smoking or not sleeping well.
Implications: Even though you think you’ve slept off the effects of your extended happy hour, you may not make decisions or problem solve as well as you normally would. For example, when driving, you may not react as quickly if a child steps off a curb in front of you…or if another car cuts you off in traffic. If your job involves driving or operating equipment, you could be at risk of injury—or of injuring someone else—even after you believe last night’s alcohol is out of your system.
Bottom line: Strong coffee and an aspirin may not erase all the aftereffects of a booze-filled night. That’s why if you’ve imbibed too much, it’s wise to ride with a friend to work or take an Uber the day after.
To see if you or someone you know is an “almost alcoholic,” take this quiz.