How I said goodbye to wine and regained my elixir of youth
What happens when a middle-aged man decides to cut down on his drinking? Ironically, he has more energy for the nightlife.
I struggle to cope with the demands of middle age. You sleep the half-sleep of the 49-year-old, get up feeling hungover even if you didn’t drink the night before, and then plunge into the new “rush hour of life”: The forties have become the decade when child-rearing and career peak coincide. Our duties would be tough even if our bodies weren’t decaying. (Productivity declines from about age 50, as corporate human resources departments know very well.)
But I have found a new way of coping: I have radically cut down my drinking from moderate to almost nothing. So far, it’s working. I’d almost call it an elixir of youth.
I had been drinking about 10 glasses of wine a week, the maximum recommended by health authorities in both France (where I live) and the UK. But in recent years, I’ve realised that just a couple of drinks of an evening make me tired and sluggish the next day.
A GENERATION OF DRINKERS
With age, your liver and stomach shrink, and become less good at removing alcohol from your system. Also, an older body carries less fluid to break down alcohol. The logical response to these changes would be to drink less. Yet Britons aged 45 to 64 are more likely to be drinkers than any other age group, says the UK’s Office for National Statistics. We are stuck in a vicious circle: Because our peers drink, we experience constant peer pressure to drink, too. And we come to assume that our peer group’s level of drinking is normal.
I suspect our generation has stuck with the bibulous habits we picked up in youth. Many of the people I grew up with in Britain took the view that drinking was an adequate substitute for having a personality. Now our midlife responsibilities encourage unwinding through alcohol. When I canvassed views from contemporaries on social media, I kept hearing some version of this joke: “I’m not sure it’s possible to sustain the pace of work plus family after 40 without having 10 or so drinks a week.”
Our habits set us apart from more abstemious millennials and Generation Zs. They reportedly avoid getting drunk for fear of generating embarrassing pictures on social media that will ruin their lives and careers. In France, the young appear to have replaced wine with weed: the demographer Jerome Fourquet estimates that 200,000 French people now make their living in the illegal cannabis trade, more than work for Uber or the EDF electricity company.
NOT WORTH THE HANGOVER
Physically, I have found cutting back surprisingly easy. I don’t crave alcohol. I’m much more addicted to coffee and my smartphone. My bigger initial worry was social: I realised I hadn’t shaken off the adolescent idea that drink equals fun. How would it feel to be the only sober person at dinner? I was afraid of coming off as puritan.
But when I confided my new system to contemporaries, I was greeted not with horror but by nods of recognition. One friend told me he’d just decided to cut down too, in his case because of blood pressure. Another wrote to me that he had cut back a few months ago: “The euphoria wasn’t worth the hangover – often. Found that too often (couple of times a year) I behaved like an idiot – funny if you’re a student, very weird and embarrassing if you’re nearly 50 with a responsible job. Sometimes did something really stupid (getting into the car anyway). Sometimes was barely capable of useful work the next day.” Vomiting in the kitchen after a dinner with friends seems to have been his Rubicon.
What has helped him cope socially, he says, is alcohol-free beer. He clearly isn’t the only one: Just since 2017, Heineken, Budweiser and Peroni have all launched zero per cent beers. Drinking this stuff gives your mates the impression you are drinking, and you feel something of a placebo effect yourself. Then there’s the rise of coffee shops, mocktails, low-alcohol beers and Dry January – which started with 4,000 British participants in 2013, now involves four million, and is spreading globally.
HAVING MORE ENERGY IS WORTH IT
My assessment: Drinking less is worth it. Admittedly, I haven’t got any thinner, and I’m not sleeping any better. Crucially, though, I have more energy. Whereas a month ago I would have said that on an average day I felt about 51, now I feel more like 47. Paradoxically, abstemiousness has even made me more social. I find I want to stay out longer when I don’t spend all evening ingesting soporifics. Nor have I noticed any peer disapproval. We tend to overestimate how interested other people are in our lives, and it turns out that nobody cares what I drink. I’ve even garnered some praise: For the first time in years, one or two people have said to me, “You’re looking well.” And when I do allow myself a social glass, once or twice a week, I treasure it.
This is no longer just a short-term experiment. I now intend to remain low-alcohol until I hit what appears to be the binge-drinking nirvana of retirement, the last happy hour before closing time.
By Simon Kuper © 2019 The Financial Times