Why Do Retired Adults Develop Alcohol and Drug Problems?

Recent research indicates that specific circumstances of retirement and major life changes associated with growing older largely explain the risks for significant alcohol and drug problems in older adults who leave the workforce. Alcohol problems and (to a lesser extent) drug problems appear in substantial numbers of older Americans who have stopped working. However, the underlying reasons for the substance-related risks in these individuals are not well-understood. In a study published in December 2014 in the journal Work, Aging and Retirement, researchers from Cornell University sought to identify some of the major risk factors for alcohol and drug abuse in American retirees. These researchers concluded that retirees’ substance problems largely stem from a range of difficulties associated with the reasons for retirement and exposure to aging-related life changes.

Retirement and Substance Problems

Retirement was once a phenomenon commonly associating with reaching one’s 60s. However, in the modern world, some people retire when they’re as young as their 40s or as old as their 70s or above. Some people who keep working after reaching their 60s prefer to remain employed; however, others have financial pressures that make it essentially impossible for them to retire. As America’s vast generation of baby boomers grows older, the number of people seeking retirement will likely increase by considerable amounts in the coming years.

In the U.S., almost 3 million people in their mid-50s or older meet the criteria that doctors use to diagnose alcohol use disorder (alcoholism and/or non-addicted but dysfunctional alcohol abuse). In the coming decade, the number of affected individuals in this age range may effectively double. For a number of reasons, alcohol problems in older adults can have more damaging effects than similar or identical problems in younger adults. Examples of these reasons include a general age-related decline in physical health and increased potential for harmful interactions between alcohol and various prescription medications. Generally speaking, researchers know less about drug problems among older adults than they know about alcohol problems. However, recent evidence indicates that the rate of exposure to drug abuse has increased sharply among older adults over the course of the first decade-plus of the 21st century.

Aging and Life Change

As we age, we naturally experience a range of personal, social and lifestyle changes. Personal change commonly takes the form of altered physical function or mental function, while social change often takes the form of a loss of loved ones or close friends. General lifestyle changes associated with growing older may stem from significant health changes, alterations of longstanding social support networks and/or altered financial status associated with health problems, voluntary retirement and involuntary loss of work opportunities.

Why Do Substance Problems Occur?

In the study published in Work, Aging and Retirement, the Cornell University researchers used detailed phone surveys of 1,200 adults between the ages of 52 and 75 to help determine the reasons retired older adults develop problems with alcohol or drug use. All of these participants came from sectors of the workforce that included the manufacturing industry, the construction industry and the service industry. Factors under consideration by the researchers included the circumstances under which any given person’s retirement occurred (i.e., voluntary vs. involuntary retirement), how much each person enjoyed his or her job before retiring, how prepared each retiree was for the lifestyle changes associated with leaving the workforce and how prepared each retiree was for the personal and social challenges common to all aging adults.

The researchers concluded that certain groups of retirees clearly have elevated chances of experiencing significant alcohol or drug problems after leaving the workforce. Prominent examples of these groups include people who retire involuntarily from jobs they enjoy, people who take voluntary early retirement rather than lose a job they enjoy, people who are relatively unprepared for the health and lifestyle changes associated with getting older, people who are relatively unprepared for the financial challenges and limitations of retirement and people who develop substantial marital problems in the aftermath of retirement.

The study’s authors believe that an approach called brief intervention could significantly reduce the odds that a retired older adult will develop diagnosable problems with alcohol or drugs or continue to experience the effects of existing problems. During a brief intervention, a doctor or any other properly trained health professional assesses his/her client or patient for indications of current or future substance-related issues. He or she then discusses the implications of the client/patient’s substance intake and suggests appropriate resources for additional assistance.

Posted on April 27th, 2015
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

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