A Toast to Retirement? Seniors Do It Too Often

Megan Brooks

January 13, 2015

Many retirees drink too much. However, it is not retirement alone that leads to overimbibing but rather a host of factors related to the life-changing event, according to a new comprehensive review of published studies on retirement and alcohol misuse.

The circumstances and conditions of retirement may fuel feelings of depression and purposelessness, as well as financial and marital strain, which can contribute to alcohol and substance abuse, according to author Peter Bamberger, PhD, of Tel Aviv University, in Israel, and Cornell University's Smithers Institute, in Ithaca, New York.

Research shows that the conditions under which people retire ― whether they are pushed into it or plan for it ― have "great bearing on alcohol and drug habits," he notes in a statement.

The "worst combination" of factors, he said, involves people who take early retirement from jobs they love because they fear their company will go under. "Among all groups studied, this one exhibited the highest incidence of substance abuse," Dr Bamberger said.

The results of the review are published in a 20-page article in the inaugural issue of the journal Work, Aging and Retirement.

Another contributing factor to alcohol misuse in retirement, said Dr Bamberger, is that older adults often lack the skills needed to cope with the sudden vacuum produced by retirement as well as painful events common to later life — such as declining health and the death of spouses and friends.

"Even if an individual plans for retirement, he/she might not fully grasp the changes that must be made to his/her lifestyle. As a result, many people experience serious financial straits. Feeling unstable, lonely, and depressed, it isn't surprising, perhaps — but it is unfortunate — that many retirees look to alcohol or drugs for comfort," he noted.

Retirement can also cause marital strain and sleep problems, which may precipitate or exacerbate alcohol misuse or abuse.

"Staggering" Numbers

The prevalence of alcohol misuse among older adults is "staggering," Dr Bamberger notes in his article. Estimates are that close to 3 million Americans in their mid-50s and older abuse alcohol, a figure that is expected to reach nearly 6 million by 2020.

Alcohol-related health problems accounted for more than $60 billion a year in hospital-related costs in the early 1990s. "With the graying of the population, these figures have likely risen dramatically," Dr Bamberger notes.

Screening and brief interventions aimed at identifying factors that might contribute to alcohol misuse in retirement may help prevent retirees from turning to drugs or alcohol, he points out.

"Sometimes awareness alone is enough to bring about positive change," he said. "Even short phone calls or brief Internet-based feedback can be so instrumental. The other way of reversing this trend is to provide ways of coping with the stresses of retirement. Retirement groups and mentors are often able to pick up on signs of deterioration before they become a problem."

Dr Bamberger also notes that research has "yet to fully grasp" the alcohol-related implications of the growing tendency of older adults to defer retirement and continue working well into their late 60s and beyond.

"The fact that over a third of those 60- to 65-year-olds employed report that their jobs involve significant physical effort, and nearly two thirds report that their jobs involved a lot of stress, makes it even more pressing for scholars to examine the impact of late-life work on older adults' well-being," he writes.

The research review was funded by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, the Smithers Institute of Cornell University, and the Henry Crowne Institute of the Recanati Business School, Tel Aviv University. Dr Bamberger is coauthor of Retirement and the Hidden Epidemic (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Work, Aging and Retirement. Published online November 12, 2014. Full text

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